Home > The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author: Suzanne Collins

“Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.”

— Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. . . .”

— John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 1689

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762

“Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Misshapes the beauteous forms of things;

— We murder to dissect.”

— William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned,” Lyrical Ballads, 1798

“I thought of the promise of virtues which he had displayed on the opening of his existence, and the subsequent blight of all kindly feeling by the loathing and scorn which his protectors had manifested towards him.”

— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818



Coriolanus released the fistful of cabbage into the pot of boiling water and swore that one day it would never pass his lips again. But this was not that day. He needed to eat a large bowl of the anemic stuff, and drink every drop of broth, to prevent his stomach from growling during the reaping ceremony. It was one of a long list of precautions he took to mask the fact that his family, despite residing in the penthouse of the Capitol’s most opulent apartment building, was as poor as district scum. That at eighteen, the heir to the once-great house of Snow had nothing to live on but his wits.

His shirt for the reaping was worrying him. He had an acceptable pair of dark dress pants bought on the black market last year, but the shirt was what people looked at. Fortunately, the Academy provided the uniforms it required for daily use. For today’s ceremony, however, students were instructed to be dressed fashionably but with the solemnity the occasion dictated. Tigris had said to trust her, and he did. Only his cousin’s cleverness with a needle had saved him so far. Still, he couldn’t expect miracles.

The shirt they’d dug from the back of the wardrobe — his father’s, from better days — was stained and yellowed with age, half the buttons missing, a cigarette burn on one cuff. Too damaged to sell in even the worst of times, and this was to be his reaping shirt? This morning he had gone to her room at daybreak, only to find both his cousin and the shirt missing. Not a good sign. Had Tigris given up on the old thing and braved the black market in some last-ditch effort to find him proper clothing? And what on earth would she possess worth trading for it? Only one thing — herself — and the house of Snow had not yet fallen that far. Or was it falling now as he salted the cabbage?

He thought of people putting a price on her. With her long, pointed nose and skinny body, Tigris was no great beauty, but she had a sweetness, a vulnerability that invited abuse. She would find takers, if she had a mind to. The idea made him feel sick and helpless and, consequently, disgusted with himself.

From deep in the apartment he heard the recording of the Capitol anthem, “Gem of Panem,” kick on. His grandmother’s tremulous soprano voice joined in, bouncing off the walls.

Gem of Panem,

Mighty city,

Through the ages, you shine anew.

As always, she was painfully off-key and slightly behind tempo. The first year of the war, she’d played the recording on national holidays for five-year-old Coriolanus and eight-year-old Tigris in order to build their sense of patriotism. The daily recital hadn’t begun until that black day when the district rebels had surrounded the Capitol, cutting it off from supplies for the remaining two years of the war. “Remember, children,” she’d say, “we are but besieged — we have not surrendered!” Then she would warble the anthem out of the penthouse window as the bombs rained down. Her small act of defiance.

We humbly kneel

To your ideal,

And the notes she could never quite hit . . .

And pledge our love to you!

Coriolanus winced a little. For a decade now, though the rebels had been silent, his grandmother had not. There were still two verses to go.

Gem of Panem,

Heart of justice,

Wisdom crowns your marble brow.

He wondered if more furniture might absorb some of the sound, but the question was academic. At present, their penthouse apartment was a microcosm of the Capitol itself, bearing the scars of the relentless rebel attacks. The twenty-foot-high walls were veined with cracks, the molded ceiling was dotted with holes from missing chunks of plaster, and ugly black strips of electrical tape held in place the broken glass of the arched windows that looked out over the city. Throughout the war and the decade that followed, the family had been forced to sell or trade many of its possessions, so that some rooms were entirely empty and closed off and the others sparsely furnished at best. Even worse, during the bitter cold of the siege’s final winter, several elegant, carved wooden pieces and innumerable volumes of books had been sacrificed to the fireplace to keep the family from freezing to death. Watching the bright pages of his picture books — the very ones he’d pored over with his mother — reduced to ashes had never failed to bring him to tears. But better off sad than dead.

Having been in his friends’ apartments, Coriolanus knew that most families had begun to repair their homes, but the Snows could not even afford a few yards of linen for a new shirt. He thought of his classmates, riffling through their closets or slipping into their newly tailored suits, and wondered just how long he could keep up appearances.

You give us light.

You reunite.

To you we make our vow.

If Tigris’s revamped shirt was unwearable, what was he to do? Fake the flu and call in sick? Spineless. Soldier through in his uniform shirt? Disrespectful. Squeeze into the red button-down that he had outgrown two years ago? Poor. Acceptable option? None of the above.

Perhaps Tigris had gone to ask help from her employer, Fabricia Whatnot, a woman as ridiculous as her name but with a certain talent for derivative fashion. Whether the trend was feathers or leathers, plastics or plush, she could find a way to incorporate it at a reasonable rate. Not much of a student, Tigris had forgone university when she’d graduated from the Academy to pursue her dream of becoming a designer. She was supposed to be an apprentice, although Fabricia used her more as slave labor, requiring her to give foot massages and clean clumps of her long magenta hair from the drains. But Tigris never complained and would hear no criticism of her boss, so pleased and grateful was she to have a position in fashion.

Gem of Panem,

Seat of power,

Strength in peacetime, shield in strife.

Coriolanus opened the refrigerator, hoping for something to liven up the cabbage soup. The sole occupant was a metal saucepan. When he removed the lid, a mush of congealed, shredded potatoes stared back at him. Had his grandmother finally made good her threat of learning to cook? Was the stuff even edible? He replaced the lid until he had more information to work with. What a luxury it would be to toss it in the trash without a second thought. What a luxury trash would be. He remembered, or thought he did, being very small and watching garbage trucks operated by Avoxes — tongueless workers made the best workers, or so his grandmother said — humming down the streets, emptying large bags of discarded food, containers, worn household items. Then came the time when nothing was disposable, no calorie unwanted, and no item unable to be traded, or burned for heat, or tucked against a wall for insulation. Everyone had learned to despise waste. It was creeping back into fashion, though. A sign of prosperity, like a decent shirt.

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