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Challenges 2 - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Challenges 2
As I loved your Coriolanus Snow: Origins piece, I'm curious to see a companion piece for Coin and her first step on the rungs of power. for vytresna

---
Interviewer: All right, Alma. The next question is simple: There are those who believe that we should intervene in Panem's domestic situation, to help the common people overthrow their tyrannical government. Do you believe this or disbelieve it? Why?

Alma Coin: (considers question) If they come to us, but only then. The districts of Panem betrayed us during the war. If they hadn't been obstinate, if they hadn't turned on us, then they wouldn't be suffering now. Their suffering is based on their ignorance of their own self-interest. Had they allowed us to teach them properly, had they learned the lessons of history, they would never have allowed themselves to fight for the Capitol --

Inteviewer:
For the Capitol?

Alma Coin: Of course. By turning their back on the Revolution, by rejecting their leaders, they sided with the Capitol. If they return to us of their own accord, we should be merciful, and accept them back as our brothers and fellow soldiers. But if they don't, then they are still traitors to the interests of humanity…

---
My grandfather had a scar.

It wasn't a tiny, thin line that provided endless hours of speculation about its origin. It was rippled, torn brand that covered almost half of his upper body. You could see the pulse of the explosion that had caused it, how it picked him up and threw him, blowing fire across his face and chest, taking one of his eyes and half of his hair. The other side of his face had fine laceration scars from landing on the harsh, rocky ground of District Two.

Every time he told the story, I imagined the whole scene: Grandfather Coin, fine in his uniform, charging against the traitorous rebels from District Two, who had turned on the rebellion and attacked their own people. Someone cast out a grenade in front of Grandfather, and he ran toward it, wanting to take the impact to save his army.

But he didn't get to it in time. He caught the brunt of the explosion, but the concussive force dislodged the boulders that the treacherous quarry workers had put over the canyon, loosing an avalanche of rock and burying much of the Liberation Army.

Grandfather barely got away. A rescue hovercraft was almost knocked out of the sky when it came to get him. Grandmother was the pilot. She took out her sidearm and killed three men who were working a rudimentary cannon, and she scooped up grandfather and five other survivors. She took a bullet to the leg. She had a scar as well -- a large pock on her calf that looked like someone had dropped a weight into a pool of gelatin.

My other grandparents, my mother's parents, were dead. They were from District Twelve, and Mother told me that my gray eyes came from there. They were both killed in action. My grandmothers were friends with one another, and when Mother's mother died, Father's mother went to District Twelve and rescued their five year old daughter. ("It was barely in time, as they tell it," Mother told me. "I was ill, and my parents' people were trying to treat me with grass.")

My parents were raised together as brother and sister, or at least as roommates, and their marriage was largely a passionless agreement -- like a few other district refugees, my mother brought us genetic diversity, so she was expected to produce children after so many people had died in the war and the final bombing, and my father wasn't especially objectionable to her. She was never happy. She always complained about being underground and having small rooms and anything else she could think of to complain about. Sometimes, she would just sit at a table and cry. She once grabbed me and said that they had stolen the sun from her children.

She had four of us. My older brother, Walter, was first, then my sister Florence. Then me. My baby sister, Clementine, was born when I was six. She was a surprise, and there was something wrong with her. No one ever told me what it was. She was small and sickly, and people were up with her all the time. There was no schedule in the house at all. Mother forgot to get us together to go down and eat dinner in the dining halls. (Father worked the dinner schedule as a cook, so he never had this duty; I don't remember whether or not he worked after Clementine was born.)

She only lived for three weeks. I remember spending a lot of time staring at her in the crib, until one day, I came home from school and she wasn't there. Mother was crying. Walt and Flo were crying. I realized I should cry as well, but Father wasn't, so I didn't, either.
---
Interviewer: If you're chosen for the Committee on Public Good, you would be expected to improve our society in any way you could. What do you see as the biggest weakness of District Thirteen?

Alma Coin: I beg your pardon?

Interviewer: Surely, there must be something you consider imperfect, Miss Coin. What is it, and how would you improve it?

Alma Coin: (nervous) It's not my place to question…

Interviewer: Perhaps not. But it is my place to question, and I have posed one for you. Please obey and answer it.

Alma Coin: Well… I… There's still a great deal of waste. And too many people who don't understand our history, and our future. After all, you can't have one without the other. Of all the regions of the remaining world, only we truly understood what happened to the human race. The Capitol enslaved all of its territories, but we offered to teach them what we'd learned. The districts of Panem rejected it and went back to slavery, but even here, too many of our own citizens persist in their folly.

Interviewer: Or simply have different opinions?

Alma Coin: (passionate)
WRONG opinions! (stands up, begins to pace) We've suffered for our prescience here. We've been ill-used and betrayed. We owe it to our predecessors in this struggle to truly embrace our ideological heritage!

Interviewer: And you don't believe the people have the right to choose otherwise?

Alma Coin: The people need to be led! Left to their own devices, they will destroy us. They need a strong figure to teach and guide them, at least until they learn self-control…

---
Things went back to normal, sort of. Flo kept taking care of Mother's business. Mother got thinner and thinner, and her black hair went gray

Then she died. As with the baby, no one told me what she was sick from. I was barely six.

Walt told me that she died with a bag over her head, but I never did know why. Maybe Walt knew. He was nine. Flo was eight, and maybe someone told her. I don't know.

Father yelled a lot after Mother was buried in the Lifezone, the rich underground park where our bodies were put back into the ecosystem. Father called her selfish and weak. Someone else said she was ungrateful for her refuge, and hadn't given enough back. What could we expect? The other districts would always betray us. They deserved what they got.

Most of what happened that day, I only remember in broken images. Walt yelled something at Father, and grabbed Flo and me. He pulled us out into the corridor. There was an elevator, one of the forbidden ones that only the surface workers are allowed to use. Someone pounded the door after us, and the ride went on forever, and then the doors opened and I screamed and screamed because my eyes hurt. There was a bright gray sky, and something cold and wet was flying around me. I knew the word "snow" and what it meant in a technical sense, but I couldn't connect it to the sharp little knives that were cutting into my face and my bare arms.

Walt screamed, "Alma!" and picked me up, and we ran toward someplace dark. Flo grabbed my feet. I remember the ground beneath us, and tree roots crawling under it like snakes.

I flung myself around, trying to get free of them, to get out of this place where I felt like I might spin off into nothingness and disappear. Twice, I flung myself entirely out of their grip and scrambled back along the path toward the dark spire where the elevator disgorged us, but they picked me up. Flo called me a brat and slapped my face.

Then there were soldiers. I don't know where they came from.

I gave myself a last fling and ran toward them, ignoring the bleeding cuts on my hands and knees.

Then there were two flat gunshots. Someone told me not to look, but I looked anyway. Flo was face down, the snow around her turning red on the ground. Walt was face up, but only half of his face was there. The remaining half was strangely intact. His bright gray eye stared at me accusingly. That image seems to go on for a long time inside my head, though I'm sure the solder who scooped me up was neither so heartless nor so inefficient as to let it go on for more than a second or two.

After the gunshots, there was the ride back down in the elevator, surrounded by soldiers. Then my grandmother's rooms. I was not taken back to my father. I saw him occasionally in the dining hall, behind the serving counter, but he didn't speak to me, and I learned not to try and engage him. Eventually, I didn't see him anymore. The rumor was that he had become ill with whatever Mother had. When my grandmother died, I was moved here, to communal housing for children. It was here that I learned that my parents were considered crazy, and my brother and sister were marked as traitors. The taunts were constant, and I made it my duty to prove that I was neither insane nor treasonous.
---
Interviewer: Finally, Alma, why do you wish to become our youth representative on the Committee on Public Good? We only choose one sixteen-year-old. Why should it be you?

Alma Coin: Because I understand. I know the truth. I know that if our leaders propose something, it is
for the Public Good, and I won't be defiant.

Interviewer: It's not because it's believed to be a path to an adult post in government?

Alma Coin: If I were chosen for such important work, I would be honored, of course. But only because it would be in the greater service of the human race.

Interviewer: I see. (pause, scans documents) Very well. You will be expected to uphold that credo. Report to the Public Good office on level 15 early tomorrow morning. Your schedule will reflect the change.




Request for something related to District 8. Were your crypto-Jews able to keep up Brit Milah? If so, something with Cecelia's son Isik's bris? for Sara Libby

---
For thousands of years, we practiced the rite of brit milah, ritual circumcision, on the eighth day of our sons' lives. We practiced it as we wandered once again in the wilderness, and we practiced it for four hundred years here in Panem.

Then came the Dark Days, and District Thirteen's sincere effort to "enlighten" us about our backward ways.

And then the Hunger Games.

Throughout most of Panem's history, the rite was practiced quietly, as it was either frowned upon or illegal, but we only married among ourselves, and no one else was likely to know (and those rare outsiders who did marry in weren't likely to say anything at that point). Now, with one boy every year being called for the Games and seen naked by government officials (whatever function the prep teams officially have, they would certainly report anomalies to the government), we have decided to be safe and hope God forgives, because the Capitol certainly will not.

I don't know if it's a moral position. I have a hard time imagining that people who don't object to children being pierced through with spears would have a moral objection to a minor bit of outpatient surgery. But they definitely object to us marking ourselves as different. They will punish the family of any tribute arriving in the arena with deliberate "mutilations." Seeder told me that a girl who made a design of scars on her belly was berated before the parade, and her parents were whipped in the square in Eleven. An early tribute from District One had some kind of ritual tattoo on his face, and his family got similar treatment. Only the Capitol may decide how to alter us.

As to the bris, for the first twelve years of the Games, we were given leeway, with only a scolding, but when the Eighteenth Games rolled around and a circumcised boy showed up -- when all babies should have been born and reached their eighth day after the Treaty of the Treason was signed -- the leniency was over. That was Woof's year, and his parents watched the parade from the stocks before being thrown into prison for two years. There were a few more years when the parents who had not taken the warnings seriously were punished, but by the first Quarter Quell, everyone had had time to wise up. The covenant is not meant to be suicidal.

So we have decided to allow a substitute. There has been historical precedent. People tried many different things over the years. We've mostly settled on one called brit rechitzah, which is a ritual washing of the feet, but because we want to maintain that it's a covenant of blood, each of the parents pricks a finger to anoint the child as he sits on the sandek's lap after the foot washing. The advantage, according to some women, is that there is no difference in ceremonies for boys and girls. The exact same thing is point of contention and outrage for others.

Two Jews, three opinions, as my grandmother used to say.

Other than the one very obvious change -- from surgery to foot washing -- the ceremony is largely intact. Isik was passed to his grandmothers, then to his godparents. Heddle Green, whose daughter, Kersey, I used to take care of, is the one who sets him on the seat of Elijah, and it is Gazar Kann who picks him up and hands him to Boze. Boze hands him to Woof.

There was no discussion of who Isik's sandek would be. Woof is my mentor, and my friend, and he has guided and protected Boze and me from the moment he pulled me out of the arena. When Boze sets Isik on his lap, he looks utterly transported with joy, even in the dingy factory basement room that serves as our synagogue. Even Boze's father didn't put up an argument. (In fact, he volunteered the idea first, so we wouldn't have to break it awkwardly to him.)

Once the washing and anointing is done, we give him the Hebrew name Yitzhak ben Boaz v'Zilpa.

We all pretend that the ceremony is complete.

I look at my son. Isik, son of Boze and Cecelia. I love him fiercely, but I am still trying to wrap my head around the notion that I am someone's mother, that the baby isn't just a precious thing that's been entrusted to me (and somehow came from my body), but one that will be reclaimed by his real mother soon. I know I shouldn't feel this way. Everyone says you're supposed to have your whole mental identity practically re-written when you become a mother, but I feel very much like I felt before he was born. Still just Cecelia, the girl who made it through the arena and deliberately made herself into the dullest celebrity in history afterward. How can I possibly be a mother? In some utterly insane corner of my mind, I feel like it's a wrinkle the Gamemakers have created, and all I'm doing is going through the motions of what a mother is expected to do. I wonder if it will ever feel normal.

When the feast starts, the passing around of the baby kicks into high gear. There's no more ritual line to pass him through, so it's everyone who wants to have a cuddle. Little Kersey Green holds him on her lap in a rocking chair, looking utterly awed at the responsibility. Boze hovers over her, in case she decides to stand up.

"Mazel tov," Woof says, coming up beside me.

"Thank you. And thank you for being part of it. I wouldn't… well, have been here to become his mother without you."

"You might have been. You wouldn't have come out of the arena if you didn't have some pretty stern stuff in you, regardless of any gifts I sent you."

I look at Isik, who is tugging on Kersey's hair. "I hope he will. This isn't going to be easy."

"No. That's why Hoda and I chose to be childless. It was a mistake. Denying ourselves joy to avoid pain. Denying a child we might have had to avoid the possibility of losing him. It was a choice from fear. You're braver than I was. That's the proof." He nods toward Isik.

"I don't feel brave. I kind of feel terrified." I give him a sheepish smile.

"And yet, you went through with it. Why?"

I walk to the window and look up at the street. I used to do this before the Games. I would wander down here, pretending to be on some different errand, but really just wanting to look up through the windows. It seemed strange to me to look up at other people's feet as they walked. Exotic somehow. A secret world. I knew that was ridiculous. Everyone knew where the window was, and there was no secret about it. But to me, this odd, skewed view always seemed separate to me. Holy. "Because I’m alive," I say. "I couldn't think of a better way to say that they didn't kill me. Is that selfish?"

"No. Just honest." He picks up a bottle of wine. We can't make wine here, because there are no grapes and no wine presses, and no one knows anymore how to supervise it to make it kosher. No one is actually sure how wine can be not kosher. There's a way, because it was once quite important. We have stories and commentaries. But we don't know any more, and that's something we don't talk about. There's a general belief that kosher wine was sweet, so we use a bit of our sugar ration to add to it. Since the sugar is boiled in water, it also, conveniently, waters the stuff down and stretches it out longer. Woof pours me a cup, then pours one for himself. We tap glasses and he says, "L'chaim."

"L'chaim," I say, and take a sip.

I stand quietly with my mentor for a while, then I see Isik starting to fuss on Kersey's lap. I go over and collect him. He most likely wants to be fed, and I most definitely want to feed him.

I take him to a quiet back room. Even in only eight days, I've learned that he gets antsy around loud sounds and fidgets too much to eat. I wrap a blanket around both of us and rock slowly in the old, splintered wooden chair where women have nursed babies for many generations. At home, I have a state of the art nursery with a gliding rocker and soft music and all of the best developmentally appropriate toys, but here, for the first time, I feel like a mother. It's not a dramatic revelation or a real change in my feelings. It's just a sense that I've joined the long historical procession of women who've sat here, or in millions of chairs just like this one, nursing babies. I imagine it will go away again when I stand up, leave this place, and go back to my staged Victor's world.

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Comments
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 9th, 2016 03:23 pm (UTC) (Link)

Excellent...

I get to be the first to comment on my request story. First, congratulations on concocting a horribly plausible and shudder-inducing story worthy of the nightmare that was Alma Coin.

Second, lovely and bittersweet story from Cecelia. The intersection of religious persecution/Games history, Cecilia's Hebrew name, her worrying about whether she feels like a real mother. Brava and thank you!

Sara Libby
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 10th, 2016 05:51 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Excellent...

It took a little trying to come up with what makes Coin tick. What would make someone so violently devoted to oppressing other people and believing she was right to do so? I mean, seriously, I doubt the woman considered the notion that maybe, just maybe, it doesn't matter who the tyrant is when you have a tyranny going on.

You're welcome on Cecelia. I think we're hitting the limit on how much they can hide, though! And boy, did it send me trolling through the internet, looking for what Jews might do when they could neither openly nor covertly do a bris. There's a lot going on on that front.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: March 10th, 2016 12:34 am (UTC) (Link)
Part of me thinks that it seems very un-Thirteenlike to kill most of young Alma's family and waste all those valuable diverse genes in her siblings, but the other part thinks that they were probably convinced that they had already been very, very patient with these oddities and had given them much more leeway than they deserved.

I love the Cecelia story so much -- I love Cecelia's whole backstory, honestly; the purposeful dullness, the crypto-Judaism, her relationship with Woof, all of it. I can't believe you were able to make all of that out of a couple of sentences in a book.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 10th, 2016 05:53 am (UTC) (Link)
It's also possible that Alma doesn't remember or register something her brother and sister did to end up getting shot. Grab at a soldier's gun, maybe? Attack and try to get Alma away from them?

I don't connect all that much with Cecelia, but she's an intellectually interesting puzzle.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 10th, 2016 06:09 am (UTC) (Link)
Well depending how developed Walt was by that time (which is plausible), he could have still been... harvested post-mortem.
After everything, I wouldn't put it past Thirteen to at least try.

-- FFR
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 10th, 2016 06:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Congratulations, this highlight on Coin is even more nightmarish than the Snow one (Have you considered making it an additional chapter in "Stops" as a companion piece?).
You do have hints as to her budding sociopathy; however, unlike with Snow, environment and ideology seems to play a much bigger role. And oh is it a toxic environment. Even most of the Capitolites acknowledged they messed up somewhere (of course they missed the point entirely with a "solution" that made things worse), but with Thirteen there's not even that; everything they did, they did right and would've gotten away with if it weren't for those meddling districts. The absolute narcissistic self-righteousness, and the way it continues with its citizens, is mindboggling.
And the really scary thing is how familiar ranty teenage Coin can be in real life.

For the second story, would circumcision be such a big red flag as religious practice?
Today it's a pretty widespread medical practice at least in the US; granted there is some controversy. Though even if it's seen by the time of the Capitol as a barbaric and inhumane practice, couldn't it still be done in the districts due to sanitary reasons?
Quibble aside, it's still a good piece on how people of faith would adapt to hostile circumstances.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 11th, 2016 07:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Forgot to mention that this is FFR who reviewed.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 11th, 2016 02:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I may well expand on it a little; it ends kind of abruptly.

I think that while Snow is a classic sociopath, who just has no moral sense at all. Coin is a delusional paranoid. Rather than having no moral sense, she has a narcissistic notion of morals that boils down to "The rest of the world is out to destroy my perfect understanding, and anything I do to make sure that doesn't happen is justified." Of course, that attitude doesn't exactly win friends and influence people, so does end up with enemies, which proves her inner narrative to herself. After all, only dangerous and important people have enemies... projective identification is a glory, eh?

On the second, I think a lot would depend on who exactly survived the Catastrophes, and what their attitudes were. And of course, a lot of things like that tend to happen when it's just a question of, "How can we mess with this group?" There's a story of a Jewish traitor during the Roman wars who told the Romans everything they needed to do to attack psychologically and ritually. Depending on the history, something like that could have happened, too. Panem is definitely not above being petty.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 11th, 2016 03:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, in a way Coin's delusional paranoia is a concentration of Thirteen itself. And then she takes the reins. *shudders*
At the very least, "They need a strong figure to teach and guide them, at least until they learn self-control" is always a terrifying rationale, especially when it's up to the figure to determine what constitutes as self-control.

And point regarding Panem pettiness.
redrikki From: redrikki Date: March 10th, 2016 08:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
The Coin one was as disturbing as it was no doubt meant to be, but I actually really liked the Cecelia one. The ceremony in it felt authentically Jewish. After all, it's not like that would be the first time in Jewish history that we would have had to modify and hide important rites.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 11th, 2016 02:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks! I've never actually been to a bris, so I had to watch a few on YouTube to see what the practice would feel like (other than to the featured participant).
princesselwen From: princesselwen Date: March 11th, 2016 10:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very good stories. The first one was really creepy--especially since it's through a child's eyes and she doesn't really understand what's going on.
I was wondering, though. If you have the crypto-Jews, and the crypto-Catholics, where are the crypto-Protestants (of varying denominations)? Could they be a subject for a future fic?
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