There's a legend in District 12, passed down through the years, that tells of a lost soul in one of the earliest generations after the Great War. It's from the time when they were still relearning the skills to coax coal from its bed in the earth, when the monthly injection the Capitol sent to keep the miners alert despite fourteen hours of darkness still had side effects.
Father had told his daughters the story once, as they lay huddled together under layers of threadbare blankets and sheets, his weight sagging the mattress. The story of one of those early miners who got separated from his fellows. He turned left when the rest of them turned right and couldn't find his way back to the light. But instead of collapsing and dying, like so many others do, he went mad, clawing at the rocks until his fingers bled and he sucked them dry. Eating lichen until he found something else to crave.
They called him the Blind Man. Blind, because his sightless eyes had long ago crystallized, petrified into milky white. According to the myth, his grasping tongue oozes black with coal, which he now eats by the fistful. "Like candy?" a wide-eyed Prim had asked, and their father had just laughed.
Lost miners, the ones who make it back to the surface, surviving the day or week that it takes a rescue crew to find them, sometimes say that they could hear the Blind Man, somewhere deep in the bowels of the mine, down shafts blocked off because they're no longer safe. Laughing, cackling like the devil himself in the very pits of hell.
No longer alive, yet unable to die.
"Daddy," Prim had shrieked as the door swung shut, eclipsing the meager light of the oil lamp in the kitchen. "Don't let the Blind Man get me!"
"He can't, little duck," Father had said, popping his head back in with a grin. "He's stuck down in the mines, stuck in the dark and the cold."
Prim frowned. "But you go down there."
Father tweaked her nose. "Don't you worry about me. I stay near the light."
That night, Prim woke the neighbors with her screams, windows winking on one by one. In the morning, when the sun's rays had chased away lingering cobwebs of fear, and Prim could speak of it without trembling, Mother chastised Father for telling the girls such stories, before bed no less. But Katniss knew, from the way that Mother looked like she was trying not to smile, that she wasn't really mad. You couldn't be mad when Father started singing like that, a song he made up on the spot about a harmless old Blind Man who went tumbling down the stairs.
In less than a month, Father was dead.
"Did the Blind Man get him?" Prim asked her, voicing their shared fear the night after they wore their best clothes to the Meadow with all the other families. Katniss had done Prim's hair; one of the braids was crooked. She'd ironed their dresses, too. Everyone from the Seam was there, and many from the Town besides, including the Undersees. The Mayor said the eulogy, and they each crumbled a handful of dirt into a shallow hole, empty. Symbolic.
Everyone but Mother, who just stood there. Not crying, not anything.
Afterward, as the remaining miners made quick work of filling in the grave, people kept stopping in front of Mother.
I'm sorry, they said.
He was a good man, they said.
He's gone to a better place, they said.
Mother said nothing, but they kept saying these things to her, again and again, blur after blur of pale and dark, until finally someone stopped in front of Mother and said something different, something new.
"When he sang, even the birds stopped and listened." Katniss looked up from her boots to see a man who looked like the sun. The Baker.
Mother looked up at him too, her gaze softening. They looked at each other for a long moment, and then the Baker inclined his head, almost a salute, and turned away. Only then did Katniss see the boy dogging his steps. The youngest.
He turned back to look at her, and his eyes were a lost sea. This time, there was nothing he could give that would make it better. That single glimpse haunts and taunts her, like so many others captured in her memory through the years. Memories that she takes out and inspects like the old photographs Mother keeps of Father, in an old grain tin, bundled with yellowed string.
Katniss is older now, and she knows the Blind Man is just a myth. Likely told and retold by the mining families to keep their children from sneaking down into the mine on those rare days the miners have off. But now, there's another monster in District 12. A real one, one that walks above the earth instead of cowering beneath it.
They call him the Victor.
Nature itself herds her toward the unknown, to the place the town avoids like a nest of tracker jackers, the place she thinks of as a tomb.
It begins slowly, a mere tease of the leaves under her feet, strewing them lazily across her path like landmines. The doe she's been tracking for half a mile is already skittish, uneasy from wafts of leather and sweat and the blood of other unfortunates, despite the underbrush that Katniss periodically sprinkles into the air to mask the scent. Now, the fragile leaves underfoot add an additional complication to her path, forcing her to regulate her steps to avoid further betraying her presence.
She's close now, easily within range, the closest she's been in years. This is it. This is the day she'll finally fell her first deer, despite Gale's taunts, despite the fact that Gale's not here to help capture or carry it.
She draws her arrow back, the motion as natural to her as breathing. The deer continues foraging, taking tiny steps this way and that. Softly, she exhales into the string, willing it to fly straight and true. One more second…
Without warning, the doe bolts, its tail a white flag that leaps and teases amid greens and browns. Adrenaline screams now or never, and her fingers twitch to release, but wisdom ultimately prevails. She lowers her bow, having learned long ago that chancing a parting shot merely costs her an arrow.
A few beats later, wind surges through the trees, brandishing branches like whips, stirring tornadoes of gold, orange, and brown, and electrifying the hair around her face. In its wake (an ominous stillness) comes the gloom. The sun melts into clouds the color of ash. She can smell it now, the reason for the doe's fear, the reason why even the birds' idle chatter has ceased. Rain.
And here she is, flat-footed and at least a mile out. Oh, she's not concerned about herself getting wet, but the pelts draped about her pack won't draw as high a price if they're damp and mottled.
This wouldn't have happened if Gale were here. He always keeps one eye on the sky, for weather and…other things. And he wouldn't have let her follow the deer so long anyway. "Stick to rabbits and squirrels," he always says. "They're more your size." Turning, she begins to lope back the way she came, wind nipping at her heels. It will be close, so she decides to risk it.
The uneven color of the jacket she wears testifies to the last time she'd gotten it wet, one of the few other times when she and Gale had been caught unawares. No one in the District bothers to try and predict the weather, like she's heard they do in some of the other Districts. Folks in 12 don't care, as most of them spend their days below the earth, where it neither rains nor shines. Down there, the forecast is always black.
After she slips under the fence, dipping lower than necessary so as not to snag her pack on the wire, she hesitates. Above, the sky grumbles, spurring her into action. She darts left, acting on instinct. Maybe because the nearest shelter is left. Or maybe it's the rain. When it rains, she can't help but think of that day. The day in which she'd sat under a tree, swallowed in her father's sweater.
Wind surges, urging her on as she reaches her destination. A rusted iron arch creaks a forlorn welcome. As she passes through it, she steps into a graveyard. Here there is shelter a-plenty, rows of empty porches where she could sit and wait out the storm. The Peacekeepers are notorious for shirking their usual patrols when the weather turns. She and Gale have counted on this for years, often using rain as an excuse to slip out into the forest.
As Katniss walks the silent corridor, the only movement she sees comes from herself, reflected in dark glass windows, gaping eyes in a skull. She sees movement and startles, whirling to face herself, reflected in dark glass. Lifeless windows, like empty eye sockets on a decayed cadaver. It's too quiet. Nothing lives here.
Each house she passes is a tombstone, representing a life no longer lived. All except for the one on the end of the street, the one farthest from the town, on the fringes of their civilization. She doesn't know if he chose the spot or if the Capitol chose it for him, as a final reminder that he's no longer of their world.
This house, it's a monument to not one but twenty-three graves. The person inside lives with their blood on his hands. This is where her steps are taking her, where the impending rain has driven her, to seek shelter with a person to whom she's never spoken, who from all accounts will not want to speak to her.
From the looks of it, she wouldn't even know it was occupied. Then her hunter's eyes pick up the signs—grass a little more worn here, a clod of dirt clinging to the edge of the porch. The bit of mud chills her, this stark reminder that a person does live here. She should turn around. Right now. Leave this nature-forsaken place and head back to town, to where she belongs. Or she could wait out the rain under twenty-three other porches. There's no reason it has to be this one.
As if on cue, the heavens unleash their fury. Katniss gasps and surges up the porch, cradling her pelts from the sudden onslaught. Her boots stomp loud and heavy on the warped wood, so much for subtle. Near the door handle, a small white button beckons. She doesn't know what it is (houses in town and in the Seam aren't this high-tech), but she can guess. The peal of the doorbell echoes in the space beyond. It's like a symphony of pickaxes striking rock. When the sound dies, nothing moves. The air is charged with a certain stillness, the kind that she's often experienced in the forest, when a deer is nearby, invisible and soundless.
She thinks of knocking, of calling out who she is, just in case that might sway him to speak. But then she thinks better of it. If he's silent, he probably has a reason. Or he might not even be there at all, her mind playing tricks in this place filled with ghosts.
She sits cross-legged on the porch and watches the world through rain.