"It's all about finding that sweet spot," Elsa Mason told her sixteen-year-old daughter. It was the morning of the Reaping, and they were surveying a particularly enormous old pine that seemed nearly impossible to fell. "Once you've found that, and start a good rhythm goin' the ol' sumbitch will be leanin' in no time flat."
Johanna raised her eyebrow and scoffed, "Momma, you are a liar. You've just got to chop it till it goes. Doesn't matter where, as long as you cut out a wedge and make sure it will fall in the right direction."
Without warning, Elsa's lean, muscled arm flexed, and one of the small hatchets she always carried in a strap around her thigh was quivering in the tree. "Oh, you think so, brainless?" She grinned at her daughter with her crooked smile, deep brown eyes twinkling madly, daring her.
Johanna cracked a matching smile and threw her own axe. It struck deep about a foot lower than her mother's and vibrated from the impact for much, much longer.
"See there? How long that wiggled around down there? That's the sweet spot. We'll get it down in no time, and then you can make me some breakfast." Pulling the small axes out of the tree, she took the larger one strapped to her back and started chopping away.
Johanna looked at her quizzically, "Can't we just use the crosscut? The axe is gonna take about a million years, and I'm hungry."
"If you want to be here all morning and get a face full of sawdust we can. This is classier, dummy. An elegant solution. Use the tree's own weight to bring it on down. A good lumberjack doesn't waste energy. Life's hard enough as it is – might as well use your brain just a bit to make it easier, hm? Let things take care of themselves. They do that, if you push them the right way."
Reaping mornings were always like this. They cut down the biggest tree they could find, made note of it to the foreman, and came home with enough money to buy a small feast for the two of them. It wasn't much money, really, but it was always nice to get some bacon from the butcher, fresh bread from the baker, about a dozen eggs, and, the most important part, an entire bar of chocolate to share. Years later, Johanna realized that her mother had to be doing something more than chopping down trees to get that chocolate, but she never found out what it was.
After swinging her axe for what seemed like a very short time, Elsa stepped aside and gave her daughter a chance to attack the tree. They were nearly the same height now, with wavy brown hair, and wide-set brown eyes so similar that most people thought they were sisters. It made sense – Elsa was only just thirty.
Falling pregnant at fourteen was a death sentence for most District 7 women. No one knew who Johanna's father was, and Elsa never would say. The rumor was that she didn't know her own self, there had been so many who could have been. The rumors were always mixed in with pitying glances – the young girl had been orphaned so suddenly when the previous winter's whooping cough had spread through the camp. It was no surprise, suddenly living with the half-blind, mostly-crazy Old Man Mason, who fed them with her tesserae and little else, that the girl had needed some kind of comfort. No one thought she'd make it through labor, let alone feed herself, the old man, and the baby.
But when little Johanna came screaming into the world, Elsa did not die. She didn't even cry. She just signed up for another tesserae, came home from school every day, strapped the baby to her back, and hiked into the forest to chop down trees. Lumber quotas were quotas, and the foremen were always looking for ways to fill them, despite regulations. They were also interested in other things that Elsa was quite willing to give them for a fair price. So trees came down, the quotas were filled, and she did what she needed to to feed her baby. Johanna's first lullaby was the steady thump of the axe as it buried itself in a tree.
The odds had been in Elsa Mason's favor – she was never called up in the Reaping, despite having her name in the drawing fifteen times her last year. She never managed to end up pregnant again, either.
But they weren't with her that morning as her baby girl confidently drew back the old axe only to feel a sudden jerk as the axehead came loose from the shaft. The thick blunted end flew through the air, slamming heavily into the base of Elsa's skull.
Hours later, Johanna Mason was called up in the Reaping, but she wasn't there. The Peacekeepers pulled her from her mother's side as the healers desperately tried to relieve the pressure of blood on Elsa's brain. She was publicly whipped before she was put on the train. There wasn't a moment to say goodbye to anyone, or even to take a token that reminded her of home. She didn't know what she would have taken anyway.
She never did get breakfast.