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Challenges 2 - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Challenges 2
A story I'd really like to see is a crypto-Catholic priest hearing a tribute's confession during the hour-long goodbye period for sonetka

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"I doubt she's got anything to tell you, Tiggy," Finnick Odair says, nodding toward the room where I can see Annie Cresta posing for pictures with her family. "Unless she stole some hairspray or something. She's pretty much a saint, as far as I know."

"I think that's her call," I say. "What about you? Do you have any conversations you'd like to have with me?"

He shakes his head, as I expect him to. When he was small and Doolin brought him to mass (or, as it's known in District Four "tackle inventory"), he was always happy and enthusiastic. Before he went to the Games, he spoke to me for the full twenty minutes and asked for last rites, as well as absolution for what would happen in the arena.

This has been a matter of urgent discussion for the full sixty-nine years of the Games. What moral responsibility do the tributes bear? It isn't easy to communicate, and of course, there's no voice from Holy Rome to allay our fears, but we've come to something of an agreement. While the arena requires certain behaviors, and we can't in good conscience hold tributes morally responsible for them, we do ask that they not betray alliances or cause death in unnecessarily painful ways. It's not enough. But we absolve those who ask of the sin of murder before they enter the arena. They are not morally responsible for what the Capitol is forcing them to do.

The first two years out of the arena, Finnick continued to see me on a regular basis, though his visits were more serious. His nightmares were debilitating, and he kept seeing the faces of the other tributes that he killed. He needed absolution, and I gave him as much penance as I could stomach.

Then, quite suddenly, he stopped coming to me. Now, he barely looks me in the eye. I'd like to take the conversation further, find out what has shamed him so deeply, but Finnick will be back. I can't be as sure about Annie Cresta, and while she may or may not have a lot to say, she is the one who called for me.

I wait for her family to leave, and approach the door. A Peacekeeper stops me. "Name?"

"Tegway Quinn," I tell him.

"Relationship to this tribute?"

"Old family friend."

"What sort of friend?"

I grind my teeth. I am used to this. I've been doing this since I was Finnick's age. The Peacekeepers have always been suspicious of me. Some of the many local flare-ups during the Catastrophes were religious, and in the early days of Panem, what religion was left went underground. If it hadn't been for the evacuation of Ireland, including a seminary in Maynooth, we might have fallen apart altogether, but that original group was able to create something like a structure, and some kind of continuity, even after the destruction of the Vatican during the Flegrei eruption. The Capitol does not, to put it mildly, trust us. Even before the Dark Days, they thought we were a secret cabal determined to wrest power from them. After the Dark Days, at least here in Four, they blamed us for seducing the locals. Possibly literally.

"I'm an old teacher of Annie's," I say. "She asked to see me."

"Funny how many of them have you for an 'old teacher.'"

"Funny how you never remember my name year to year. At any rate, you can't keep out a visitor that a tribute has asked to see. It's in the rules."

"Rules can be broken."

"Not this one."

I go around the Peacekeeper and into the room, shutting the door behind me.

Annie runs over to me and grabs my hand. "Tiggy," she says. "Thank you." She sits down on the puffy blue footstool and indicates that I should sit in the chair. This is usual. I don't know why, but they all seem more comfortable if I'm in the "grown-up" seating. It's never been anything I've suggested or enforced.

She bites her lip. She is eighteen years old and stunning, and everyone in the district loves her. Her father owns a small fleet of fishing boats, and, though he's supposed to make his living renting them, he's known to overlook collecting fees to let poor fishermen go out on the bay to make their livings. Annie is like that as well. She makes nets and often deliberately makes "mistakes" that make them unsellable, so that she can put them in the charity bin.

She's also flighty and boy crazy, but I imagine she'll grow out of both.

Or would have.

I sigh and take her hand.

She looks around nervously, then makes the sign of the cross and whispers, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been six months or so. And I'm scared."

"It's all right, Annie."

"I, um… I sinned with my boyfriend. And I gossiped about Finnick Odair. That was really bad, and now he's my mentor. I shouldn't have been playing guessing games about what he's doing in the Capitol…"

"Sins between people are forgiven by people. Did you bear false witness?"

"No. I just guessed."

"Go on."

"I fought with my mother about stupid things. My clothes. And I was vain about my hair."

"It's very pretty hair."

"And, um… I… I can't think of all of it! I can't go in until I've thought of everything, Father. I need more time. I need to think. I know I did more and I won't be clean of it and --"

"Peace, Annie. God will hear even what you forget to say."

She nods and grips my hand so tightly that it hurts. She goes through the usual run of sins that every teenage girl I've ever heard confesses to. I absolve her, and tell her to say her rosary on the train. (The rosary is a simple knotted string with colored stones to mark the decades. There is no cross on it, since it would only be confiscated, but there is a blank, unknotted section at the base which most people tie into a cross while they pray.)

"And what about… Well, they'll make me sin in the arena."

"I know," I say. "Annie, kneel."

She kneels. I put my hand on her head and whisper the words that we have all agreed on.

"Father, your faithful daughter Angeline is now sent to the place of sacrifice. She will endeavor there to be a woman of honor and courage, but she will be in the power of those beholden to sin itself. We ask that she be held blameless in your sight for wrongs forced upon her by others of evil will. As Your Son forgave the Roman soldiers who knew not what they did, we ask that you forgive Angeline for even the most grievous sins, should she be forced to commit them."

"I'll try not to," Annie says. "I promise, I'll try."

I nod.

I give her communion and last rites.

She leaves for the train.



Something with Woof mentoring/advising Cecelia for Sara Libby

------
Victors' Village is only separated from the rest of District Eight by a tasteful stone wall, covered with ivy now at the height of summer. It's electrified, of course, and Peacekeepers routinely check to make sure there's been no infiltration, but there's rarely any attempt at it. Because they're generally well-behaved, I'm able to make my birthday into a local holiday -- not because I care whether or not people know my birthday, but because for this one day a year, in the pretty days of August, I can open the gate and host a picnic along the riverbank, with green trees lush in the humid air, and the clean smell of the water up here above the textile mills.

There's an island in the river, but no way to get to it other than swimming, which the children can't do, and I pretend not to be able to do. Every now and then, I'll make the swim myself and pretend that my wife Hoda and I could really just escape, hide away from the surveillance. I know we'll never do it. It's been made quite clear that, should I ever find it tantalizing to attempt to walk across the ice choked river into the out-districts, the government of Panem would make District Eight extremely sorry for it. But it's a nice fantasy.

It's a different world here -- as far as it's possible to get from the shoddy, quickly constructed warehouses of the city. Here, they even left some grace notes of the world that existed before, where Victors' Village was once a riverside park in a city with the musical sounding name of "Minneapolis." I would love it, if I didn't live here because I turned out to be an efficient killer, and of course, if Hoda and I didn't live here alone. Hoda sometimes jokes that she feels like a queen in an old fairy tale, getting so desperate for company that she's ready to try planting a garden in the hopes that it will magically provide company.

Of course, we're not entirely alone anymore.

Cecelia isn't at the party or the picnic, though her contributions have made the party much bigger than usual this year. She's sitting on the ornamental dock, her feet in the water, off somewhere in her own head, feeding the ubiquitous ducks. (I go back and forth on the morality of feeding the ducks while people are starving, but usually I'm in favor of it. I can't feed the people very often, it makes the ducks' lives better, and frankly, though it's forbidden, the people are known to eat the ducks… may as well make sure they have some meat on their bones.) Cecelia finishes up whatever bag of crumbs she's been feeding them, and sighs heavily.

I go and sit down beside her and drop my bare feet into the Mississippi. This far north, it's cold even at this time of year, but I don't mind. It feels real. "It's better than last week, and it'll be better next week."

"Sure," she says. "Next year, it'll start raining puppies."

"No. Next year, it starts all over again. Sorry."

She looks at me cautiously. "I wonder if anyone can hear us here. I mean, I guess with all the cameras since I got out of the arena, I feel like they're everywhere."

I smile. "No bugs. I combed the dock stem to stern this morning. Come evening, the kids will be up here. The Capitol doesn't need to listen to them complaining."

"Oh. Good."

"Don't trust your house, though."

"I'm not stupid."

"Bandstand's no good, either."

"I figured." She pulls out another loaf of bread -- a yeast bread, not our usual matzah -- and starts in with the ducks again. "Three is average for victors," she says. "Did you know that? I thought I'd done pretty well, keeping it down to three kills. But it turns out, that's average. The individual highest kill count in any Games was eight."

"That's a third of the field."

"Yeah. And that guy wasn't even the victor. The ninth one he tried took him out. So most victors don't single-handedly wipe everyone else out. I never noticed that. I always remembered the victors having big kill counts. Did you know that? That I was pretty average?"

"I never looked at the numbers."

"What was your count?"

"Four." I take some of her bread and start handing it out to a crowd of famished ducklings. "The first was at the Cornucopia. Farrow Brown, from Eleven. I didn't even realize I was really going to do it until it was done. That poor girl did nothing to me. She was just in the way, and I was high strung. She had a pet squirrel at home. I found that out later. Then I got into a fight with Gilbert Lange. District Seven. I won. Pushed his head down into a sharp rock. He played the banjo. Then I got jumped by the pair from Six -- Marcia Strobe and Claude King. They almost got me. But there was a cliff. I had better footing. She loved old maps, and he played a mean game of stickball."

"Does that help?" she asks. "Finding out things like that?"

"It depends what you mean by 'help.'"

"Does it make it hurt less?"

"No. Not even a little. It makes it hurt more."

She frowns. "You made it hurt more on purpose."

"It should hurt. I killed four kids who were no more evil than I was."

"And who's to say your blood is redder?" she muses.

It's an old saying, and one that we talk about a lot in terms of the Games. The law was simple once: If you're ordered to either murder a man or die, you're supposed to die, because who's to say your blood is any redder than his? Of course, there's also an explicit law that if an evil man demands that a community hands over one of its own to die or be destroyed en masse, we're supposed to let ourselves be destroyed rather than hand over an innocent to be murdered, and we hand over two every year. No one's hands are clean. In the face of the Games and the unremitting evil of the Capitol, very few people have that kind of fortitude. The best we can do in the arena is make sure that it's in self-defense… and in the case of that poor girl from Eleven, I didn't even have that piss poor an excuse.

"I think about it a lot. But the point isn't to make it feel better. You shouldn't let it kill you, but it's important to not let it destroy you, either -- don't let it turn you into someone who doesn't care that it happened. Remember them. Carry them with you."

"I just… I thought I was being as good as I could be. But it's average."

"When you start meeting the others -- and there are a few I can't wait for you to meet -- you'll find out that a lot of the victors were trying to be as good as they could be under the circumstances. Not all of them, of course. But a lot. Enough to make it average."

"So, we're all nice killers?"

"'Nice' might be an overstatement. But a lot of them are decent enough to hate how indecent it all is."

"How do I keep functioning?"

"Keep feeding the ducks, I guess. They're good listeners. And you have your family still. And Hoda and I are very happy to have neighbors finally, so you can always come to us."

"Yeah…"

"And one more thing -- don't stay out of the city. Those people over there at the picnic are part of you, too. And part of me. What do you say we rejoin them? A little cake, a little dancing?"

"Will that help?"

"Have you ever known cake not to help?"

She laughs. She seems surprised by it. "You know," she says, "I never have."

I stand up and offer her a hand to get up, and we go back to the picnic.
12 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
gabrielladusult From: gabrielladusult Date: March 27th, 2014 11:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I love how both of these address the continuation of religious traditions in the face of such Godless violence and oppression. It fits with both Catholic and Jewish history and it is good to see here.

As a Catholic, I have always admired your respectful writing of priests, since I know you are not Catholic and they can get a bad rap.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 27th, 2014 08:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
Religion has always been a matter of fascination with me (probably how comparative religion ended up my sort of "accidental major" in college). I find it very unlikely that it would have all dried up completely.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 27th, 2014 02:09 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thanks So Much...

For mine especially, but for both of them. Great exploration of the role of religion in the Districts and the contemplation of ethics and morality vis a vis the Games. Thanks for another glimpse into the life of District 8 (and 4).

Sara Libby
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 27th, 2014 08:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thanks So Much...

It's got to be hard to deal with moral questions in a world like this one. Yeep.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 27th, 2014 07:57 pm (UTC) (Link)

Aren't District 4 volunteers?

I agree with the posters above - I love the fleshing out of the crypto-religions in Panem, and the way people grappled with the moral issues of the Games. But wasn't Annie a volunteer (as per one of your earlier stories, and the norm in District 4)? It seems a little incongruous to seek absolution for sins you've just volunteered to commit.

And on that note, I'm really interested in the attitude towards the Games in the Career Districts. What is the culture and training that induces teenagers to volunteer - compete for the opportunity - to kill or be killed? I really hope we get a glimpse of your take on that in one of your future stories... (unfortunately I missed the challenge call.. :-/)

And another point - hope I'm not being too annoyingly nit-picky, but the ending of Feeding the Ducks, with Cecelia's glib acceptance of cake, seemed a bit off to me. I get the point, that the only way to cope is to go on taking pleasure in living, but in context of their discussion, and the recentness of the Cecelia's Games - it seemed to trivialise the pain. [Only saying this because I love your writing and characterisation so much. JMHO anyway.]

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 27th, 2014 08:50 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Aren't District 4 volunteers?

All these little shorts are subject to change, but I'm not sure that volunteering and asking for absolution are necessarily incompatible, depending on how the mindset works. If someone is going to be sent anyway, then the sins are going to be committed, whether the person who goes is directly reaped or volunteers in place of that person. It's not like she'd be volunteering to just randomly kill.

As to the cake? The vignette didn't show any natural sign of ending, so I ended it. In terms of the emotional logic of it, it's simply saying to stop wallowing in the pain and move forward. Cecelia recognizes it as something of a lifeline thrown to her, and she grabs hold.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: March 27th, 2014 08:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Niiice. Thank you so much! For some reason I'd been thinking that it would be District 10 in the first one, but District 4 is perfect -- all those Irish names :). Annie's confession sounds very, very teenage girl -- note-perfect. I can't remember; didn't she go into the Games with her boyfriend that year? I swear, the more I think about District 4 as it is in the books, the less sense it makes as a career district.

The second was really nice; I thought the cake line was fine, kind of awkward, but so is Woof. For some reason I had thought he and his wife were childless on purpose, possibly because they didn't want to risk having a child get reaped.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 28th, 2014 06:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, D10 is a lot like D4, so they may have their own "Tiggy" around.

Woof and his wife were childless by choice, but not necessarily because they wanted to be, and as they enter middle age, they're lonely, and may well be regretting it. I'm thinking he's the one who tells Cecelia not to make the same mistake.
From: queen_bellatrix Date: March 28th, 2014 02:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Someone else put the knotted rope together to make Cripto-Catholicism! This makes me so very excited; as I was reading the books, I was writing a Catholic protag and that was the first thing I thought of when I read Finn in MJ, and I've spent months being repeatedly told there's no religion in the books, so there can't be religion in the country and wanting to bang my head against the desk because I, too, agree that it wouldn't just...dry up. We've been telling stories/myths and expressing faith since the dawn of humanity; I don't think Snow's quite good enough to put out that impulse.:d

Anyway...loved the challenge, both Annie's confession and seeing Finn at this point in his life. This really seems to be rock bottom for him, and Mags was so right that mentoring someone like Annie and learning to care was going to be the very best medicine. I hope he started talking to Tiggy again after this; it'd fit, with how stable we see him before the first half of MJ.

And Annie; I love how you've portrayed her through so many of your shorts at this particular time in her life, because it allows such a brilliant contrast with the woman going through the crucible of the arena and loving Finn makes her.

Having delved quite deeply in to Catholicism research, everything about your absolution/the prayer/their moral conclusions felt very, very spot-on with present religious doctorine, fwiw.

With the second one; I really, really like Cecelia and Woof. The cake line felt really fitting to me; it's a beautiful day, and he's essentially saying to get out of her head and enjoy it, if I read it correctly. Also, I love how the Victors use little loopholes to do good for their Districts!

I love how he used the fact that her kill count was average to try and explain that all the victors who were "average" were just trying to be the best people they could be.

One of the things I love about these challenges is the range of characters povs you enter, and how distinctive you make them, and you've done it here; I love Woof's straight-on view of the world and wrye humor and just general decency.

As someone else whose fascinated with religion, the fact that you got to pair these and explore morality from so many angles is immensely cool. Also, I love what bits of "old-world" religious lore survive. Communion, last rights, absolution, and Old Testament/Torah law, if I'm not wrong about the is your blood redder one? They all feel so plausible as the fragments that would have survived, mostly due to their centrality in both faiths.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 28th, 2014 06:31 am (UTC) (Link)
Ha, glad I'm not the only one to think of the knot-rosary. I've seen the theory that there's no religion, and I can see where it comes from, but just looking at history, I'd be, to put it mildly, quite surprised. I can believe it's true in some places, and D12 seems to be one of them. But in all places everywhere? I'm not buying it.

It was nice to have a paired set of challenges to look at this issue with.

The "no one decent ever wins" line from Katniss always struck me as a realistic enough POV for her, but not as The Truth Written In Stone. She has a lot of self-loathing, but she's a perfectly decent person, and a lot of the other victors are pretty decent, too.
jedi_chick From: jedi_chick Date: March 28th, 2014 05:23 am (UTC) (Link)
I loved the way you dealt with the moral issues of the Games in the first one. The history that you wove into the story just makes sense and fits. It's heartbreaking to see Annie as a "flighty" teenage girl, before she's broken, but you really did a great job capturing a typical teenage girl. I also liked the detail about how Finnick suddenly started avoiding Tiggy.

I thought the bit about the cake at the end of the second one flowed well, and was a good way to get Cecelia to let go of thinking and worrying for the moment. I think my favorite bit in the second challenge was Woof's passing thought on the morality of feeding the ducks. It's one of those ordinary things to us that shows just how upside the world they're living in is. :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 28th, 2014 06:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I like the idea that Annie wasn't superhuman before the Games, that she was a regular, nice girl who got weird after.

And feeding the ducks? Well, it's not like they're going to be randomly allowed to feed anyone else!
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