Whence Came the Mockingjay
Dead. His squadmates, comrades in arms. All dead. The realization of his own loneliness hit him like a sledgehammer every morning. No, not a sledgehammer, he realized as the sunlight burned into his dilated, bloodshot eyes and his head throbbed with every heartbeat. An artillery round. Like the one that had shredded Sergeant Tucker into a cloud of pink mist. Or the one that had impacted twenty five yards from their position and cleanly detached his left hand with the suction of its detonation. He instinctively grasped for the bottle to try and drown that memory out, but his flailing stump merely spilled what little was left of the moonshine. He bit his lip until he tasted blood, fighting back a stream of obscenities. He hadn't even been able to buy, beg or steal enough booze to get properly drunk anyways. And now the last of it was oozing across the crookedly planed pineboards of the shanty floor. Instead of helping carry him further into oblivion. Frick.
With a groan, he rolled out of the nest of filthy blankets that served as his bed, booted feet thumping onto the floor. He wore the old combat boots constantly now. One thing the Army of the Rebellion had gotten right were its boots. He snorted. Ok, the only thing the Army had gotten right were the boots. The troops might have been starving, half naked, outflanked, outnumbered, out of ammunition, but they had been well shod. And we fought like hell, he thought, with a small glimmer of pride. Two hundred thousand dead Capitol troops had to count for something. And how many of us did they say they killed? He didn't want to know. Didn't really care. The Capitol troops hadn't had to hotfoot it halfway across a continent under constant bombardment. Hadn't clung, desperate, to mountainsides while hovercraft strafed them.
He groaned again when he stood, the ruin of his twisted right leg popping and cracking under the strain of bearing his weight. He blindly grasped for the cane, hand clutching the polished wood. Lean on it. Knock the creaking door ajar and stagger out, blinking in the light. District Twelve had been spared the worst of the war's atrocities. Only about two hundred had ever left to fight. Only five had returned. No great loss to the coal mines. The Capitol forces had rolled back in. Burned down a few buildings, hung about a dozen rebel sympathizers. Nobody squealed. The survivors of the rebellion were allowed to live out their wretched spans unmolested. Even though they were hardly hiding, he thought ruefully, glancing down at his boots.
Why did it have to be so carking bright? He risked a glance at the sky. Midday. Empty streets. Everyone at school or work. He risked another unsteady step. Further out into the brightness. Something clinked metallically against the cane, and he glanced down once more. The medallion. Emma had given it to him. A token of their undying love. A symbol of how their hopes were tied to the cause. Or so goes the story. He had worn the thing pinned to his lapel. A comfort through fire and pain and terror. Fondled it in the dark nights. Memorized each contour. She'd never glanced at him when he returned, a shambling wreck of a man. He'd continued trying to end the nightmare, first with morphling, then with the bottle when morphling became unobtainable. She had married an up and coming young quisling who kowtowed to the Capitol and was on the fast track to success. Was now busily cranking out children, as far as he knew. Whore. The thing hurt to look at, almost as much as it hurt to think of Emma.
He staggered onto the empty street. Off in the distance, he could hear the sound of the mine machinery. The strained whine of motors and the heavy thud as a load of coal reached the surface. Exposed to the blasted sunlight. Just like him.
He saw the Peacekeepers out of the corner of his eye. Starched white uniforms. The sun reflected off their visors. Slouching nonchalantly on the bakery porch, watching him. Time was he couldn't make it down the street without enduring at least a few catcalls. Or a solid beating. Now they just lounged there, watching him. Not even deigning to sneer. He, and everything he represented, were no longer enough of a threat. Simply a fading memory. Because of the Games. The infernal Games.
A shady corner where the bakery and an outbuilding joined. Perfect. Gingerly, he lowered himself down, leaning heavily on the cane. Weeds. Dust. Gravel. The siding digging into his back. He was asleep in a matter of minutes. Sitting in the corner like a diseased mendicant. Sometimes appearances are true.
Children's voices. Laughter. The easy chatter of lighthearted conversations. Someone crying. His eyes slowly drifted open, and he watched them drift past. Knots and clumps and straggles of children. Rag clad, some of them. Hungry. But so full of life. They passed, and he watched them go with wistful detachment.. Soon the street was quiet again.
Shadows lengthened, stretching across the gravel roadbed like grasping hands. He shifted in his corner, settling in to sleep again. Then he heard the voice. Faint with distance, and sweet with melody. He paused to watch. To listen. The war had taken his hand but not his hearing, and he savored every note.
The girl finally rounded the corner, her shadow going before her like a cockeyed jester, dancing over the dusty roadbed and across the walls of the building across the way. Her song was clearer now, an old tune. Ancient as the hills and as sorrowful as yesterday. It was beautiful. She was very young, no more than ten, and he instantly recognized her golden hair, the shape of her eyes. Knew who she had got them from.
She was nearly past him. He shifted, tried to rise. She must have caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, because she stopped to stare. The song died on her lips. He struggled again to get up, but his leg would not cooperate, and he fell back with a stifled moan. Held his head in his hands. On she goes, he thought. And her song with her.
A cool touch on his shoulder. Hesitant, cautious. He glanced up, and she flinched away. He knew how he must look. A man prematurely old. Grizzled and filthy. But she composed herself and smiled. Smiled. And the sun seemed brighter.
He knew what he must do. Had meant to do for a long time. Now for a different reason. He could no more hurt the mother of this cherub of music anymore than he could hurt the child herself.
"Here. I have something you might like."
Again, the child was wary. As she ought to be. But he reached for the staff and unpinned the brooch from its accustomed ribbon all the same. It glinted redly in the dying light. A mockingjay brooch. As far as he knew, the last of its kind. To the child, merely a pretty bauble, he was sure. When she paused to take it, he wondered. Perhaps she did understand what it meant. He smiled. She smiled wanly back, unsure what to make of this strange man.
"Go along. You'll be late for dinner." His voice seemed harsh in his ears, croaking. She started walking away. Stopped suddenly and turned, hands at her sides, back rigid. And quickly, so quickly he nearly missed it, snapped him a salute. One that he hadn't seen in years. One that he remembered with every fiber of his body. And then she was gone, and he was again alone in the dust and the weeds and the lengthening shadows.
Mission accomplished, soldier, he thought. The seed had been sown.