Cantaré: Song of the Dying
Normal warnings for this fandom apply.
[The Reapings are out of order.]
[4/7/2014: Some edits, nothing major.]
The familiar room folded out like the watercolor pages of a picture book. As he watched the scene unravel before him, a trembling needle-hot breath was forced from his lungs as though it was woe to leave.
Pale cream colored walls sectioned off by smooth wooden beams and a yielding floor of soft wood unraveled from the folds of the darkness he occupied. It was like coming home after a long, cold trek through the snow on a moonless night.
A thin section of the far wall slid open, so perfectly camouflaged that he took a moment to wonder if it was real at all or if the mechanics of the dreamworld were still at work here. Kanato knew it was a dream because a room this warm and quaint had never existed in all of District 9 for as long as it was known as such.
A tiny voice whispered in his ear, a familiar companion he'd encountered many times before, so many times in fact that he could have traced out every detail with exact precision with his eyes closed. He could have traced it out, if only voices had a real and solid form.
He looked up expectantly as a small child entered the room, stumbling inside while balanced on unsteady feet. A wide smile was on his smooth, pale face. Dark eyes were alight with mischief and innocent secrets and in those depths Kanato could see two things: the absence of hardship, of the labor that characterized every citizen who walked under the Capitol's flag, and himself.
But he didn't need to look the boy in the eyes to see his reflection. It was enough to fix his gaze on the boy himself and recognize that they were one in the same, practically mirror images of each other. If he moved one hand, might the other boy copy his movements? His reflection stood before him, a thin hand outstretched, urging him over to the center of the room to play. Toys were scattered over the floor: colorful cards, an unsolved puzzle, iridescent marbles. They were toys he had never played with in his entire life.
"Let's play!" When the boy laughed, his voice was remarkably untainted by the harsh grit of the smokestacks, lighter than any bird he had ever seen flit with heavy wings across the smog packed sky over District 9. He could have listened to that voice forever without growing tired of it.
No such thing existed in all of Panem, he was sure, not even in the Capitol where the people were all perpetually happy.
"Kana, what do you wanna play?"
Kanato pointed with deliberate slowness at the marbles, as if afraid that his voice might chase the dream away, might shatter this warm and comforting room into countless shards. The little glistening balls of glass with their little bursts of colors swirling inside them transfixed him, drew him deeper and deeper in awe.
The boy giggled at his confusion. Hands that mirrored his own poured the bag's contents out, the little marbles scattering with gently clinks and shimmering glass. Kanato withdrew slightly. He didn't know the rules; how did he play? The boy seemed to know exactly how. Kanato was handed a smooth green marble, a tiny and insignificant trinket in the palm of his hand with a delicate swirl of colors inside it. If he looked closely, it was like a little ocean inside a glass ball.
They played for a long time. How much time he wasn't sure, only that he wouldn't have minded if this dream never ended, if he never woke up to the cramped bedroom he shared with his parents. It might have even been nice to simply fall asleep here and never wake up again.
The second the bright yellow marble with a coil of grass twirling around inside it slid from his grasp, he knew that the dream had come to an end. The marble rolled towards the door, which was now slightly ajar. He couldn't remember if it had been that way before, but it was now.
The boy made to retrieve it and Kanato reached out, catching his brightly patterned clothes at the last second. His fingers, much shorter and a bit chubbier than his real ones, trembled and groped uselessly at the air when the boy extricated himself from Kanato's grasp. A reassuring smily was on his face and a peaceful cloud ran through Kanato's body.
He wanted to believe in those eyes. Everything was fine. Today is just a normal day.
Something moved in the thin gap of darkness beyond the doors, something sleek with glinting eyes like marbles and a sweeping tail that trailed behind its bowed shoulders. A low, rattling hiss bled through the walls like the painful cry of a dying creature and not unlike a quieter, smoother version of the squeal of a machine taking its last breaths before it was dismantled.
The creature's snout nudged at the doors almost curiously. The boy backed away, the marble forgotten. As the thing came into view it took on a feline shape, a humongous cat with a pelt of twilight. Its eyes were golden, slitted blades that trailed over the room before stopping at the two other breathing, living beings in the room besides itself.
'Get away!' he wanted to scream. No sound came out, though. No sound ever came out. It was like trying to be heard at a whisper in the boiler room of the factory.
The feline's thin shoulder blades were hunched into high arcs, shifting and dipping beneath a short coat pulled taut over its streamline bones. Its muscles quivered and another low hiss escaped its gaping maw proudly displaying perfects sets of teeth.
Kanato blinked. The cat leapt, clearing the distance between it and its prey in a single bound. As Kanato watched it move, he clenched his teeth and a hitched, soundless gasp stole the breath from his lungs. He bit his lip until he tasted the unpleasantly metallic tang of blood, but it was all red that he was seeing anyways.
it dripped from the cat's long fangs, seeped into the flooring, splattered over the puzzle pieces and marbles and that cat's dark fur. Strips of cloth dangled from the creature's jaws and Kanato blocked out the choking, gurgling, strangled sounds coming from the boy on the floor, the cat's satisfied hiss, and perhaps his own screams.
He clutched his hands against his chest until it hurt, feeling that if he didn't do so, if he acted on instinct and reached for the boy, he would soon be no better off. He might not even have a chance to scream.
The cat leapt for him - and the room quivered, tremors riding through the floorboards and up the walls until he could barely stand (or was he already sitting?). The cat halted in its steps, ears quivering as it balanced on four steady feet. The marbles on the floor rolled as if going down an incline, passing through pools of blood and tracing clean little streaks behind them as they migrated.
The door opened for the last time. His parents burst into the room this time, only they weren't quite his parents, not really. His parents were worn and gritty from years spent working in the factories, in the processing plants specifically. Their hands were calloused and their smiles wrinkled. More often than not they were too exhausted to hold extended conversations, sometimes too exhausted to even wavy goodbye. But these people - these clean, warm, impeccable people - were somehow his parents. Not that he could explain it, except that it felt right and at the same time completely off.
The cat, its flanks heaving and blood dripping off the fine hairs of its snout, was no longer in his sight. He didn't know where it went, why it had gone and why it left only him in its wake. His thoughts scrambled, he didn't notice his mother as she flew at him, her embrace sharp and painful and crushing. He could almost imagine those claws and fangs tearing through his shirt instead, so easily rendering him into a pile of cooling flesh and tattered clothes.
His mother was crying, grasping at his head and hugging him as if he would disappear if she let go. For all Kanato knew, maybe he really would.
"Oh thank goodness, thank goodness...Kana, I love you, we love you so much. Congratulations."
"Congratulations," said his father with pride, his smooth baritone voice nothing like his mother's hysterical crying and nearly meaningless chanting. He could hear the relief in the man's tone, though, and saw his shoulders relax as he leaned down to ruffle the hair on Kanato's head. "You've finally graduated."
His chin was perched on his mother's shoulder and if he stood on the tips of his toes a bit more he could see -
His eyes widened, impossibly so, and they burned and quivered and he just couldn't look away no matter how he wished to at least blink and miss a moment of it. Dark and glassy like marbles, was what he thought. And the blood shimmered, redder than the marbles, but all of the marbles were now dyed the same red.
Weak gasps, feeble breaths, pushed themselves from his throat but he couldn't make a sound and his hands wouldn't reach.
'Can't you see he's dying? He's bleeding everywhere. Help him, please. Please…'
And the dream ended.
Kanato woke with a gasp. He writhed momentarily in bed, receiving nothing but heated warmth and stale air the scent of rotting plaster from the cramped bedroom. The only window in the room was sealed shut after a previous tenant had left off the ledge in a desperate attempt to end her own life.
Even though he'd slept for most of the night, he hardly felt rested at all. A distinct and familiar burn settled into the space between his eyes. His throat was dry and stung like he hadn't had anything to drink in days.
The sun was just rising on reaping day, but in District 9 the only sign that the new day had arrived was the weak, scattered blotch of pale light in the sky that struggled to penetrate the never ending blanket of smog.
Kanato drew his knees up against his chest and sat in bed until his parents began to stir.
Hamon yanked at his washed out, threadbare shirt until he was quite certain it would tear. He went with the motion complacently, but Kanato was hardly cooperative in any way, shape, or form.
"We're going to be late. C'mon, we only have two more years to go and then we can celebrate all we want. For now, let's just get this over with," his friend grumbled.
Kanato nodded absently as he reached out with bare hands towards the prone form half swimming in the dirty gutter water along the side of the road. A pungent, sweet, and sickly odor wafted up from the sewers, pushed into the air aboveground by the heat from the pipelines beneath their feet. Along with it came the distinct, dank scent of death that never quite went away once it really began to sink into the surroundings.
"What're you doing, Kana? C'mon," Hamon intoned harshly, perhaps a bit more on edge than usual (although Kanato had always known Hamon for being particularly short tempered) because it was reaping day. Kanato's hands, too, were trembling slightly despite how he urged them to be still.
His friend trotted over and peered over his shoulder with a huff of impatience, his shadow falling over the stretch of street that Kanato was crouched over. He heard Hamon utter a gag of disgust, but Kanato only smiled a bit at his reaction. Hamon had known him since they were both toddling around the daycare at school; he knew that Kanato could never resist indulging in his curiosity.
"Ugh, that's disgusting. Seriously, what's wrong with you? I swear your mom dropped you on the head when you were a kid. Now let's go, already," Hamon groaned, reaching out to yank on his friend's upper arm.
Kanato offered the distorted, partially decayed corpse a last wistful smile, the very edges of his lips tilted upwards in joy. It reminded him of the boy from his dreams who played marbles with him, except the real world was much, much dimmer than that one. With a last look of regret and longing he consented to letting Hamon drag him off to the square for the reaping.
The boys' footsteps slowed as they neared the town square, which was already swarming with crowds of people in their best clothes and on their best manners. It wouldn't do to seem too eager, so people kept their voices low and their bets between their sleeves. Just one wrong word or laugh might earn you the disdain of your neighbors and that alone was probably worse than actually being reaped for the Games themselves.
With an aggravated grunt, Hamon smacked Kanato over the head. He firmly planted his hand between the strands of Kanato's brown hair and pushed him down until he was staring at the grimy stones beneath their feet.
"Seriously, wipe that smirk off your face. You look like you're high," he grumbled.
"Sorry," Kanato said briefly. He shrugged his friend's hand away, shook his head, and looked up. This wasn't the time to be staring at the ground; that was how people got mugged or worse.
The two boys took their places in the section for seventeen year old males, readily exchanging half-hearted jokes and jibes with their friends and classmates. It didn't do much to alleviate their fears, but it was better than standing there crying or forcing themselves into panic attacks from the worry. They'd had six years to find efficient ways to cope, unlike the trembling twelve year olds at the very back.
As the ceremonies started, Kanato's eyes trailed up to the smog cloaked sky and the dark, blurred forms of the few birds that dared cross into the airspace above District 9. They were the types of birds that fed on decomposing corpses in the alleyways, the ones that lurked around garbages and dumpsters for their next meal. The people of District 9 probably had a little more in common with them than they thought, sans the wings that just made those birds silly little creatures in the end. After all, who wanted to live here? No one did, just those stupid birds and the rail thin skeletons people kept as pets. No one wanted to live in Panem, period.
Hamon poked him in his side discreetly, drawing his attention to the platform. They'd finished the last of the opening remarks, the dreadfully dry speech the mayor was obligated to give every year (he could probably recite it in his sleep, Kanato thought). The District 9 escort was flitting about on stage, barely able to contain her excitement like a child in a candy store.
An unnaturally pale hand delved into the sea of papers just as white as the escort's skin. Despite himself, Kanato felt his throat swell like it did after he woke from the nightmare that had plagued him since his childhood - terror frozen across his face, his mouth dry and hoarse like he'd been screaming for hours. He couldn't swallow and couldn't speak, even if he wanted to.
It was like seeing those slitted eyes narrowing in on its prey, a long tongue flickering out to swipe the blood from its lips. And then, remarkable, there was nothing.
When they were younger, he and Hamon had clutched at each others' hands in anticipation, just waiting to hear their cursed names and for forces neither of them could ever fight to throw their lives away like trash. That was before they had realized that they lived like trash normally anyways, had always been worth less than yesterday's garbage the moment they were born.
Hamon still didn't approve of him terrorizing their neighbors' pets and plucking the wings off the few birds he managed to catch on occasion. Kanato didn't understand why. They were just animals, worthless ones at that (almost like them), and perhaps he had done it to understand why.
So Kanato forced his quivering nerves to subside, to sink back into the depths of his mind where they belonged because animals didn't tremble until they were hurting, until they were in the throes of death.
A tall girl's name was called and he hated it just as much as anyone else. Of course he did. Somehow, people were different. Each year he watched the Games as was required of him, but each year he probably spent more time throwing up and dry heaving than actually watching the screen. His friends teased him something, made cruel jibes other times, and were there to wipe the vomit from his mouth and hold his hair back for the rest of it.
He couldn't explain it without sounding crazy. Couldn't explain what it felt like watching that boy die all over again - how it felt like his body wanted to tear itself in two.
But, surprisingly, he didn't feel sad nor angry when his name was called. All he felt was emptiness and a cold, cold sense that he was forgetting something important. He couldn't remember what.
"Will Kanato Winton please step up to the stage?"
A smooth button slipped from her trembling fingers. Beca breathed in deeply, closed her eyes for a moment, and focused on the small collared shirt.
"Sit still," she said, though not unkindly, at the small boy swinging his legs over the side of the scraggly bed the two siblings shared. His worn secondhand dress shoes smacked against the rusty metal beams holding the bed together as he hummed a little meaningless tune, breaking to cough every few beats.
A strikingly loud clanging from the kitchen made her start with a snarl, but she withheld it at the last moment and managed to smooth her features out to give her little brother a smile. It wasn't the most reassuring smile, but it was something.
"You're gonna have to wait with mom and dad, 'kay, Joel?" Beca said while her attention was drawn to the buttons. It was going a bit smoother now. "It won't be too long. I'll come find you as soon as it's done, so try not to wander. After that, let's see if we can get you something from town as a treat."
Beca looked up at her brother wearily, faintly tracing the path through town in her mind to see if she could possibly risk passing through the more…unsightly parts of it or if she should just wait until Joel was safely at home. She couldn't trust her mother or father to see to any of that.
The little boy nodded sharply. Though he usually offered her a wide smile when she was feeling conflicted like this, today he was a bit subdued. She couldn't blame him. Last year he'd only been three and it was hard for him to remember everything about the Games. After all, he had barely been able to understand why everyone was so tense and frightened on this day.
This year, though, he knew. It was something he didn't need to worry about until he turned twelve, but Beca could still lose sleep over it.
She'd almost lost count of how many times she had taken out tesserae since she was twelve years old, give her parents' startling inability to hold steady jobs of any sort. They couldn't even maintain their positions as garbage collectors or janitors with the way they were.
If the harsh, muttered cursing from the next room over was anything to go by, they were still at each others' throats and unlikely to even notice Joel as they walked to the town square. Hopefully they wouldn't lose him, though.
"Alright, done!" Beca declared, moving away with exaggerated glee. "You look absolutely wonderful. Now, let's go. If I don't drag mom and dad to the square, they might never go, even if it's the reaping."
Though Beca wouldn't exactly mind it if the Peacekeepers dragged them away for good, her only concern was that she still had this one last year to go and if she wasn't around, Joel…
Beca shook her head to clear those thoughts, but halted the instant a throbbing pain began to settle into her temples. Joel tugged at her skirt, a bit tattered at the hems and slightly musty, but her best clothes regardless.
"What's wrong, Beca? You want me to go get the medicine?"
She shook her head even though it hurt to do so and leaned down to place firm yet gentle hands on his thin shoulders. She could feel his bones protruding from his shirt.
"No, I'll be fine," she lied. Then more seriously, "Joel, I've told you before: it's not medicine. If you're ever feeling bad, don't take it, just lay down for a bit and try to find something to eat. Now come on, I don't want to be late."
Beca marched up to the front of the crowd, sliding into place among all her eighteen year old classmates. They were girls she barely knew the names of, people she had tried not to concern herself with for a very long time now. They were talking amongst each other, trying to calm one another's fears. Beca was counting out the tesserae she had taken in her life up until now, this crucial moment.
Everyone was nervous, of course. It was their last year and who knew how many slips of paper each of them had in that bowl.
The crowd fell silent, not a single sound rising up from the square.
The mayor stepped up and all Beca could think was of how hypocritical he was for his subservience to the Capitol, for condemning his district's children to die for his own sake. She gritted her teeth and hid her clenched fists in her skirts; it wouldn't do to be caught showing open hostility now of all times.
The moments ticked by and the mayor was done giving his speech when their District's escort sauntered up to the girl's reaping ball with lofty and exaggerated motions. How badly she wanted to see one of them suffer like those kids suffered for the sake of entertainment and control.
Everyone in the Districts were seen as the same to the Capitol: nothing more than fun little toys they could wind up, pit against each other, and laugh at. Then it should be no different for the Capitol citizens; after all, they were human too (as much as she didn't want to admit it), even if they were barely such.
"And our District 7 tribute for this year is…Beca Marshall! Congratulations!"
Anton Hannigan and Kanato Winton are my characters. Beca Marshall belongs to Anarchy Girl.