Chapter no 26

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Sejanus smacked himself on the forehead. “Oh! How did the test go?” “We’ll see, I guess,” said Coriolanus. “They’re sending it to the Capitol

for grading. They said it could take awhile before I get the results.” “You’ll pass,” Sejanus assured him. “You deserve to.”

So supportive. So duplicitous. So self-destructive. Like a moth to a flame. Coriolanus started a bit, remembering Pluribus’s letter. Wasn’t that what Dean Highbottom had kept muttering after his fight with Coriolanus’s father all those years ago? Almost. He’d used the plural. “Like moths to a flame.” As if an entire flock of moths were flying straight into an inferno. A whole group bent on self-destruction. Who was he referring to? Oh, who cared? Drugged, hate-fueled, old High-as-a-Kite-Bottom. Better not to even wonder.

After dinner, Coriolanus put in his first hour of guard duty at an air hangar on the far side of the base. Paired with an old-timer who immediately dozed off after instructing him to keep an eye out, he found his thoughts fixating on Lucy Gray, wishing he could see her, or at least talk to her. It seemed a waste to be on guard, where clearly nothing ever happened, when he could be holding her in his arms. He felt trapped here on base, while she could freely roam the night. In some ways, it had been better to have her locked up in the Capitol, where he always had a general idea of what she was doing. For all he knew, Billy Taupe was trying to worm his way back into her heart at this very moment. Why pretend he wasn’t at least a little jealous? Perhaps he should have had him arrested after all. . . .

Back in the barrack, he penned a quick note to Ma, praising the treats, and another to Pluribus to thank him for his help, then to ask him about getting strings for Lucy Gray. His brain tired from the test, Coriolanus slept deeply and awoke already sweating in the hot August morning. When did the weather break? September? October? By lunchtime, the line from the ice machine extended halfway around the mess hall. Slated for kitchen detail, Coriolanus braced himself for the worst but found that he’d been upgraded from dishes to chopping. This would’ve been a welcome change had he not been assigned the onions. The tears he could live with, but he became increasingly concerned about the smell that radiated from his hands. Even after an evening of mopping, it still drew comment in the barrack, and no amount of scrubbing erased it. Would he be reeking when he saw Lucy Gray again?

Friday morning, despite the heat and his unease around the Citadel scientists, he felt a certain relief that he’d be dealing with birds that afternoon. Though unlikable, they left no noticeable odor. When Beanpole collapsed during drills, the sergeant had his bunkmates haul him to the clinic, where Coriolanus took the opportunity to get a metal can of powder for a heat rash that extended across his chest and under his right arm. “Keep it dry,” the medic advised. He had to suppress the impulse to roll his eyes. He’d not been dry, not one moment, since he’d arrived in the steam bath of District 12.

After a lunch of cold meat-spread sandwiches, they bounced along in the truck to the woods, where the scientists, still sporting their white lab coats, awaited them. Just as they teamed up, Coriolanus learned that Bug, lacking a partner on Wednesday, had been working in tandem with Dr. Kay. She’d been so impressed with his agility in the branches, she’d requested him again. It was too late to switch partners, so Coriolanus followed her group into the trees, hanging as far back as he could.

It was no use. As he watched Bug carry a newly baited cage up into the first tree and swap it with one holding a captured jabberjay, Dr. Kay came up behind him. “So, what do you think of the districts, Private Snow?”

He was trapped like a bird. Trapped like the tributes in the zoo. Fleeing into the trees was not an option. He remembered Lucy Gray’s advice that had saved him in the monkey house. Own it.

He turned to her with a smile sheepish enough to acknowledge her nailing him but amused enough to show he didn’t care. “You know, I think I

learned more about Panem in one day as a Peacekeeper than I did in thirteen years of school.”

Dr. Kay laughed. “Yes. There’s a world of education to be had out here. I was assigned to Twelve during the war. Lived on your base. Worked in these woods.”

“You were part of the jabberjay project, then?” asked Coriolanus. At least they’d both had public failures.

“I headed it,” said Dr. Kay significantly.

major public failure. Coriolanus felt more comfortable. He’d only embarrassed himself in the Hunger Games, not a nationwide war. Perhaps she would be sympathetic and give a favorable report to Dr. Gaul on her return if he made a good impression. Making an effort to engage her might pay off. He remembered that the jabberjays were all male and couldn’t reproduce with one another. “So these jabberjays, they were the actual birds you used for surveillance during the war?”

“Mm-hmm. These were my babies. Never thought I’d see them again. The general consensus was they wouldn’t last the winter. The genetically engineered often struggle in the wild. But they were strong, my birds, and nature has a mind of its own,” she said.

Bug reached the lowest branch and handed down the cage holding the jabberjay. “We should leave them in the traps for now.” It wasn’t a question, just a remark.

“Yes. It may help reduce the stress of the transition,” agreed Dr. Kay.

Bug nodded, slid to the ground, and accepted another fresh trap from Coriolanus. Without asking, he made for a second tree. Dr. Kay watched approvingly. “Some people just understand birds.”

Coriolanus felt, unequivocally, that he would never be one of those people, but surely he could pretend to be for a few hours. He squatted down beside the trap and examined the jabberjay, which chattered away. “You know, I never quite grasped how these worked.” Not that he’d made any effort to find out. “I know they recorded conversations, but how did you control them?”

“They’re trained to respond to audio commands. If we’re lucky, I can show you.” Dr. Kay pulled a small rectangular device from her pocket. Several colored buttons protruded from it, none of which were marked, but maybe age and use had worn the markings away. She knelt down across the

cage from him and studied the bird with more affection than Coriolanus felt befitted a scientist. “Isn’t he beautiful?”

Coriolanus tried to sound convincing. “Very.”

“So, what you hear now, this chatter, it’s his own. He can mimic the other birds, or us, or say whatever he likes. He’s in neutral,” she said.

“In neutral?” Coriolanus asked.

“In neutral?” He heard his voice echo from the bird’s beak. “In neutral?”

Even creepier when it’s your own voice, he thought, but he gave a delighted laugh. “That was me!”

“That was me!” the jabberjay said in his voice, and then began to mimic a nearby bird.

“It was indeed,” said Dr. Kay. “But in neutral, he’ll move on to something else quickly. Another voice. Usually, just a short phrase. Or a snatch of birdsong. Whatever catches his fancy. For surveillance, we needed to put him in record mode. Fingers crossed.” She pressed one of the buttons on her remote control.

Coriolanus heard nothing. “Oh, no. I guess it’s too old.”

Dr. Kay’s face, however, wore a smile. “Not necessarily. The command tones are inaudible to human beings but easily registered by the birds. Notice how quiet he is?”

The jabberjay had fallen silent. It hopped around in its trap, cocking its head, pecking at things, the same in all ways except its verbalizing.

“Is it working?” asked Coriolanus.

“We’ll see.” Dr. Kay hit another button on her control, and the bird resumed its normal chirping. “Neutral again. Now let’s see what he’s retained.” She pressed a third button.

After a brief pause, the bird began to speak.

“Oh, no. I guess it’s too old.”

“Not necessarily. The command tones are inaudible to human beings but easily registered by the birds. Notice how quiet he is?”

“Is it working?” “We’ll see.”

An exact replica. But no. The rustling of the trees, the buzzing of the insects, the other birds, none of that had been recorded. Only the pure sound of the human voices.

“Huh,” said Coriolanus, somewhat impressed. “How long can they record for?”

“An hour or so, on a good day,” Dr. Kay told him. “They’re designed to seek out forested areas and then are attracted to human voices. We’d release them into the woods in record mode, then retrieve them with a homing signal back at the base, where we’d analyze the recordings. Not just here, but in Districts Eleven, Nine, wherever we thought they’d be of value.”

“You couldn’t just set microphones in the trees?” Coriolanus asked.

“You can bug buildings, but the forest is too large. The rebels knew the terrain well; we didn’t. They moved from place to place. The jabberjay is an organic, mobile recording device and, unlike a microphone, it’s undetectable. The rebels could catch one, kill it, eat it even, and all they would find is an ordinary bird,” explained Dr. Kay. “They are perfect, in theory.”

“But in practice, the rebels figured out what they were,” said Coriolanus. “How did they manage that?”

“Not entirely sure. Some thought they saw the birds returning to base, but we only recalled them in the dead of night, in which they’re virtually impossible to detect, and only a few at a time. More likely we didn’t cover our tracks. Didn’t make sure that the information we acted on could have had a source other than a recording in the woods. That would’ve brought suspicion, and even though their black feathers are an excellent camouflage at night, their activity after hours would be a clue. Then, I think, they just started experimenting with them, feeding us false information and seeing how we reacted.” She shrugged. “Or maybe they had a spy on the base. I doubt we’ll ever really know.”

“Why don’t you just use the homing device to call them back to the base now? Instead of —” Coriolanus stopped himself, not wanting to seem like a whiner.

“Instead of dragging you out in this heat to be eaten alive by mosquitoes?” She laughed. “The whole transmission system was dismantled, and our old aviary seems to store supplies now. Besides, I’d rather have my hands on them. We don’t want them to fly off and never come back, do we?”

“Of course not,” Coriolanus lied. “Would they do that?”

“I’m not sure what they’ll do, now that they’ve gone native. At the end of the war, I released them on neutral. It would have been cruel otherwise. A

mute bird would have faced too many challenges. They not only survived but mated successfully with the mockingbirds. So now we have a whole new species.” Dr. Kay pointed up at a mockingjay in the foliage. “Mockingjays, the locals call them.”

“And what can they do?” asked Coriolanus.

“Not sure. I’ve been watching them for the last few days. They’ve no ability to mimic speech. But they have a better, more sustained ability to repeat music than their mothers,” she said. “Sing something.”

Coriolanus only had one song in his repertoire.

Gem of Panem, Mighty city,

Through the ages, you shine anew.

The mockingjay cocked its head and then sang back. No words, but an exact replica of the melody, in a voice that seemed half human, half bird. A few other birds in the area picked it up and wove it into a harmonic fabric, which again reminded him of the Covey with their old songs.

“We should kill them all.” The words slipped out before he could stop them.

“Kill them all? Why?” said Dr. Kay in surprise.

“They’re unnatural.” He tried to twist the comment so it sounded like it came from a bird lover. “Perhaps they’ll hurt the other species.”

“They appear to be rather compatible. And they’re all over Panem, wherever jabberjays and mockingbirds cohabited. We’ll take some back and see if they can reproduce, mockingjay with mockingjay. If they can’t, they’ll all be gone in a few years anyway. If they can, what’s one more songbird?” she said.

Coriolanus agreed they were probably harmless. He spent the rest of the afternoon asking questions and treating the birds gently to make up for his callous suggestion. He didn’t mind the jabberjays so much — they seemed rather interesting from a military standpoint — but something about the mockingjays repelled him. He distrusted their spontaneous creation. Nature running amok. They should die out, and die out soon.

At the end of the day, though they found themselves in possession of over thirty jabberjays, not one mockingjay had been caught in the traps.

“Perhaps the jabberjays are less suspicious, given that the traps are more familiar to them. They were raised in cages, after all,” mused Dr. Kay. “No matter. We’ll give them a few more days and, if needed, we’ll bring out the nets.”

Or the guns, thought Coriolanus.

Back at the base, he and Bug were chosen to unload the cages and help the scientists position them in an old hangar that was to be the birds’ temporary home. “Would you like to help us care for them until we take them back to the Capitol?” Dr. Kay asked them. Bug gave one of his rare smiles in assent, and Coriolanus accepted with enthusiasm. Besides wanting to make a good impression, it was cooler in the hangar, with its industrial fans. That seemed better for his heat rash, which had flared up impressively in the woods. At least it made for a change.

Before lights-out, the bunkmates laid out Ma’s treats and made a plan for the next two Hob weekends, in case she didn’t send boxes regularly. By virtue of his trading skills, Smiley became their treasurer, carefully setting aside enough for two rounds of white liquor and donations into the Covey bucket after the show. What remained they divided five ways. For his share, Coriolanus took another six popcorn balls, of which he allowed himself only one. The rest he would save for the Covey.

On Saturday morning, Coriolanus awoke to a hailstorm drumming away at the roof of the barrack. On the way to breakfast, the bunkmates pelted each other with ice balls the size of oranges, but by midmorning the sun came out, stronger than ever. He and Bug were assigned to care for the jabberjays in the afternoon. They cleaned cages, then fed and watered the birds under the direction of two of the Citadel scientists. Although some had been trapped in pairs or threesomes, each bird now resided in its own cage. During the latter part of their shift, they carefully carried the birds, one at a time, to an area of the hangar where a makeshift lab had been set up. The jabberjays were numbered, tagged, and run through basic drills to see if they still responded to the audio commands from the remote controls. All appeared to have retained the ability to record and play the human voice.

Out of earshot of the scientists, Bug shook his head. “Is that good for them?”

“I don’t know. It’s what they’re built to do,” said Coriolanus. “They’d be happier if we just left them in the woods,” said Bug.

Coriolanus wasn’t sure Bug was right. For all he knew, they’d wake up in the Citadel lab in a few days, wondering what that atrocious ten-year nightmare in District 12 had been. Maybe they’d be happier in a controlled environment, where so many threats had been removed. “I’m sure the scientists will take good care of them.”

After supper, he tried not to show his impatience as he waited for his bunkmates to ready themselves. As he’d decided to keep his romance secret, he planned to slip away once they’d arrived at the Hob. That left the problem of Sejanus. He’d lied about the money, but maybe he was just trying to fit in with the rest of his penniless bunkmates. After the incident with the map, he’d seemed genuinely contrite, so hopefully he’d recognized the danger of acting as a go-between with Lil. But would Billy Taupe or the rebels try to approach him again, since he’d initially expressed a willingness to help them? He was such a sitting duck. The easiest thing would be to take him along to see the Covey once they’d given the others the slip.

“Want to come backstage with me?” he asked Sejanus quietly when they’d reached the Hob.

“Am I invited?” asked Sejanus.

“Of course,” said Coriolanus, although really only he had been. Maybe it was good, though. If Sejanus could keep Maude Ivory entertained, then Coriolanus might get a few moments alone with Lucy Gray. “But we’ll need to shake the rest of the crew.”

This proved to be simple, since the crowd had grown from the previous week, and the new batch of white liquor was particularly strong. Leaving Smiley, Bug, and Beanpole to haggle, they found the door near the stage and exited onto a narrow, empty backstreet.

What Lucy Gray had referred to as the shed turned out to be some sort of old garage that could hold about eight cars. The large doors used for vehicle entry were chained shut, but a smaller door in the corner of the building directly across from the stage door was held open with a cinder block. When Coriolanus heard chatter and instruments tuning, he knew they had the right place.

They entered and found the Covey had commandeered the space, making themselves at home on old tires and odd bits of furniture, their instrument cases and equipment scattered everywhere. Even with a second door in the far back corner propped open, the place felt like an oven. The evening light

poured in through a few cracked windows, catching the dust that floated thick in the air.

When she saw them, Maude Ivory ran over, dressed in her pink frock. “Hey there!”

“Good evening.” Coriolanus bowed and then presented her with the packet of popcorn balls. “Sweets to the sweet.”

Maude Ivory pulled back the paper and gave a little hop on one foot before she dipped into a curtsy. “Thank you kindly. I’ll sing you a special song tonight!”

“I came with no other hope,” said Coriolanus. It was funny how the society talk of the Capitol seemed natural with the Covey.

“Okay, but I can’t say your name, because you’re a secret,” she giggled. Maude Ivory ran over to Lucy Gray, who sat cross-legged on an old desk,

tuning her guitar. She smiled down at the child’s excited face but said sternly, “Save them for after.” Maude Ivory skipped over to show her treasure to the rest of the band. Sejanus joined them while Coriolanus waved in passing and headed for Lucy Gray. “You didn’t need to do that. You’re going to spoil her.”

“Just trying to get some happy in her head,” he said.

“How about my head?” teased Lucy Gray. Coriolanus leaned over and kissed her. “Okay, that’s a start.” She scooted over and patted the desk beside her.

Coriolanus sat and checked out the shed. “What’s this place?”

“Right now it’s our break room. We come here before and after the show and when we go offstage between numbers,” she told him.

“But who owns it?” He hoped they weren’t trepassing.

Lucy Gray seemed unconcerned. “No idea. We’ll just perch here until they shoo us off.”

Birds. Always birds with her, when it came to the Covey. Singing, perching, feathers in their hats. Pretty birds all. He told her about his assignment with the jabberjays, thinking she might be impressed that he’d been singled out to work with them, but it only seemed to make her sad.

“I hate to think of them caged up, when they’ve had a taste of freedom,” Lucy Gray said. “What do they expect to find back in their labs?”

“I don’t know. If their weapons still work?” he guessed.

“Sounds like torture, having someone controlling your voice like that.” Her hand reached up to touch her throat.

Coriolanus thought that a bit dramatic but tried to sound comforting. “I don’t think there’s a human equivalent.”

“Really? Do you always feel free to speak your mind, Coriolanus Snow?” she asked, giving him a quizzical look.

Free to speak his mind? Of course, he did. Well, within reason. He didn’t go around shooting his mouth off about every little thing. What did she mean? She meant what he thought about the Capitol. And the Hunger Games. And the districts. The truth was, most of what the Capitol did, he supported, and the rest rarely concerned him. But if it came to it, he’d speak out. Wouldn’t he? Against the Capitol? Like Sejanus had? Even if it meant repercussions? He didn’t know, but he felt on the defensive. “I do. I think you should say what you think.”

“That’s what my daddy thought, too. And he ended up with more bullet holes than I could count on my fingers,” she said.

What was she implying? Even if she didn’t say so, he’d bet those bullets came from a Peacekeeper’s gun. Perhaps from someone dressed exactly as Coriolanus was now. “And my father was killed by a rebel sniper.”

Lucy Gray sighed. “Now you’re mad.”

“No.” But he was. He tried to swallow his anger. “I’m just tired. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you all week. And I’m sorry about your father — I’m sorry about my father — but I don’t run Panem.”

“Lucy Gray!” Maude Ivory called across the shed. “It’s time!” The Covey had begun to assemble by the door, instruments in hand.

“I better go.” Coriolanus slid off the desk. “Have a good show.” “Will I see you after?” she asked.

He brushed off his uniform. “I have to get back for curfew.”

Lucy Gray rose and swung her guitar strap over her head. “I see. Well, tomorrow we’re planning a trip to the lake, if you’re free.”

“The lake?” Were there actually pleasurable destinations in this miserable place?

“It’s in the woods. A bit of a hike, but the water’s fine for swimming,” she said. “Sure would like you to come along. Bring Sejanus, too. We’d have the whole day.”

He wanted to go. To be with her for a whole day. He was still upset, but it was stupid. She hadn’t accused him of anything, really. The conversation had just gotten off track. It was all on account of those stupid birds. She was

reaching out; did he really want to push her away? He saw her so little he could not afford moodiness. “All right. We’ll come after breakfast.”

“Okay, then.” She planted a kiss on his cheek and joined the rest of the Covey as they left the shed.

Back in the Hob, he and Sejanus pushed their way through the dim interior, the air heavy with sweat and liquor. They found their bunkmates in the same spot as the week before. Bug had secured crates for them, and Coriolanus and Sejanus settled in on either side of him, each taking a swig from the communal bottle.

Maude Ivory scampered out to introduce the band. The music began as soon as the Covey had taken the stage.

Coriolanus leaned against the wall and made up for lost time with the white liquor. He wasn’t going to see Lucy Gray after, so why not get a little drunk? The knot of anger in his chest began to unwind as he stared at her. So attractive, so engaging, so alive. He began to feel bad about losing his temper, and had trouble even remembering what she’d said to set him off. Maybe nothing at all. It’d been a long, stressful week, with the test, and the birds, and Sejanus’s foolishness. He deserved to enjoy himself.

He knocked back several more swallows and felt friendlier toward the world. Tunes, familiar and new, washed over him. Once he caught himself singing along with the audience and stopped self-consciously before he realized no one cared, or was sober enough to remember much if they did.

At some point, Barb Azure, Tam Amber, and Clerk Carmine left the stage, apparently to take a break in the shed, leaving Maude Ivory up on her box at the mic with Lucy Gray strumming beside her.

“I promised a friend I’d sing him something special tonight, so this is it,” Maude Ivory chirped. “Every one of us Covey owes our name to a ballad, and this one belongs to this pretty lady right here!” She held out a hand to Lucy Gray, who curtsied to scattered applause. “It’s a really old one by some man named Wordsworth. We mixed it up a little, so it makes better sense, but you still need to listen close.” She pressed her finger to her lips, and the audience settled down.

Coriolanus gave his head a shake and tried to focus. If this was Lucy Gray’s song, he wanted to pay careful attention so he could say something nice about it tomorrow.

Maude Ivory nodded to Lucy Gray for her intro and began to sing in a solemn voice:

Oft I had heard of Lucy Gray:

And, when I crossed the wild,

I chanced to see at break of day The solitary child.

No mate, no comrade Lucy knew; She dwelt where none abide,

— The sweetest thing that ever grew Upon the mountainside!

Okay, so there was a little girl who lived on a mountain. And apparently had trouble making friends.

You yet may spy the fawn at play The hare among the green;

But the sweet face of Lucy Gray Will never more be seen.

And she died. How? He had a feeling he was about to find out.

“To-night will be a stormy night — You to the town must go;

And take a lantern, Child, to light Your mother through the snow.”

“That, Father! Will I gladly do: ’Tis scarcely afternoon —

The village clock has just struck two, And yonder is the moon!”

At this the Father turned his hook, To kindling for the day;

He plied his work; — and Lucy took The lantern on her way.

As carefree as a mountain doe: A fresh, new path she broke

Her feet dispersed the powdery snow,

That rose up just like smoke.

The storm came on before its time:

She wandered up and down; And many a hill did Lucy climb:

But never reached the town.

Ah. Lots of nonsense words, but she got lost in the snow. Well, no wonder, if they sent her out into a snowstorm. And then she probably froze to death.

The wretched parents all that night Went shouting far and wide;

But there was neither sound nor sight To serve them as a guide.

At daybreak on a hill they stood That overlooked the scene;

And thence they saw the bridge of wood, That spanned a deep ravine.

They wept — and, turning homeward, cried, “In heaven we all shall meet”;

— When in the snow the mother spied The print of Lucy’s feet.

Oh, good. They found her footprints. Happy ending. It was one of those silly things, like that song Lucy Gray sung about a man they thought had frozen to death. They tried to cremate him in an oven, but he only thawed out and was fine. Sam Somebody.

Then downwards from the steep hill’s edge They tracked the footmarks small;

And through the broken hawthorn hedge, And by the long stone-wall;

And then an open field they crossed: The marks were still the same;

They tracked them on, not ever lost; And to the bridge they came.

They followed from the snowy bank Those footmarks, one by one,

Into the middle of the plank; And further there were none!

Wait? What? She vanished into thin air?

— Yet some maintain that to this day She is a living child;

That you may see sweet Lucy Gray Upon the lonesome wild.

O’er rough and smooth she trips along, And never looks behind;

And sings a solitary song That whistles in the wind.

Oh, a ghost story. Ugh. Boo. So ridiculous. Well, he’d try hard to love it when he saw the Covey tomorrow. But, really, who named their child after a ghost girl? Although, if the girl was a ghost, where was her body? Maybe she got tired of her negligent parents sending her into blizzards and ran off to live in the wild. But then, why didn’t she grow up? He couldn’t make sense of it, and the white liquor wasn’t helping. It reminded him of the time he hadn’t understood the poem in rhetoric class and Livia Cardew had humiliated him in front of everyone. What a dreadful song. Maybe no one would mention it. . . . No, they would. Maude Ivory would expect a response. So he’d say it was brilliant and leave it at that. What if she wanted to talk about it?

Coriolanus decided to put it to Sejanus, who’d always been good at rhetoric, just to see if he had any thoughts.

But when he leaned across Bug, he found Sejanus’s crate was empty.

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