While I waited in the kitchen doorway, my backpack slung over my shoulder, Peeta quickly rolled the dough into a smooth ball and placed it in a butter-lined bowl. “That needs to rise for about an hour,” he said as he draped a cotton cloth over it. Then he turned to me, eyebrows raised expectantly over his eyes.
“Get a coat,” I said. “And come on.”
We went outside. The air was colder and the clouds looked steel-plated, but it wasn’t snowing yet. Peeta followed me down the front steps and onto the narrow concrete walkway that ran to the end of his property.
“What are we doing out here?” he asked, his fingers fumbling with the buttons of his woolen overcoat. “It’s cold.”
I showed him my backpack. “What you were saying before about wanting to do something – I understand. I want to do something too. Nothing big. Just – something.” I faltered, and then I wasn’t sure what to say next. There was so much anger inside me, so much bitterness. Wave after wave of it. I had to get it out of me, and this was all I could think to do. It wasn’t the same as shooting an arrow into a force field and it definitely wasn’t the same as shooting President Coin through the heart. But it was something.
And it wouldn’t get either of us in much trouble.
Peeta was watching me steadily, his shoulders hunched against the rising wind, his cheeks and ears already pink with cold. There was still a faint dusting of flour on his forehead and the tip of his nose.
I unzipped my backpack and turned it over, shaking out the walnuts. They were still in their green hulls, so they bounced against the concrete. When the backpack was empty I tossed it aside and toed the walnuts more or less into a pile.
“Have you ever harvested walnuts?” I asked.
He shook his head, which didn’t surprise me. The Mellarks had been bakers, but they’d never had to harvest their own grain. If they’d wanted walnuts, they could easily have bought them at the market.
“You have to get the hulls off first. It’s messy,” I cautioned.
He snorted, for a second sounding uncomfortably like the broken boy the Capitol had returned to me all those months ago, and my stomach lurched. But when I met his eyes, there was no hatred behind the blue, only wry amusement at the idea that he’d care about getting a little messy after all we’d been through.
“Okay,” I said, feeling better if not exactly comforted. “So, there are different ways of hulling walnuts. Some people use knives. I used to know someone—” he’s dead now, of course “—who used to just roll over them again and again with his wagon. This works too.” And with that, I raised one foot, and then brought it down hard on the pile.
A few walnuts skittered away from my foot. The hulls of the ones I’d stomped on didn’t split right away, but I was far from done. With a grunt, I brought my foot down again, so hard that I jarred my hip. I didn’t care. Using all my weight, I turned my ankle this way and that, grinding the walnuts between the concrete and the sole of my boot.
Peeta made a curious sound – not quite a snort, but close. I felt kind of self-conscious suddenly, which must have been how he’d felt when I watched him knead dough. I wasn’t about to stop, though. This felt weirdly satisfying, mangling something to turn it into something I could eat, something useful. Worthwhile destruction.
“Come on,” I said through my gritted teeth.
Tentatively, he joined me. He didn’t say a word, but I could tell from the jerky, hesitant way he moved that he thought this was strange.
But no stranger than anything else we’d already had to do to survive. Though he didn’t say it, the thought must have occurred to him because at one point I thought I heard him laugh – a harsh sound, like flint on steel, but better than silence – and when I started jumping up and down on the pile, he did too.
It didn’t take us long to crack most of the hulls, splattering the walkway and our boots with green pulp and black walnut juice. Still, by the time we were done, my lungs were on fire and my ears and fingertips were numb.
And it was snowing.
I’d been so engrossed in my stomping that I hadn’t noticed the first flakes. Immediately, I thought of Prim and my heart seized up, but then Peeta tipped his head back and said “Katniss, look” in a voice that was breathy with wonder.
“We need to bring them inside,” I muttered quickly, dropping to my knees on the walkway and starting to scoop walnuts, mashed hulls and all, into my backpack. They would stain, but I didn’t care. “They need to dry for a few days.”
I felt Peeta’s warm breath against my forehead as he joined me.
“After they dry,” I went on, my eyes lowered, my fingers avoiding his as we snatched up walnuts, “we get to break them. With a hammer.”
He laughed again, and this time it reminded me not so much of flint and steel but the spark they make together. “Katniss,” he said, “we don’t have to wait that long if you still want to break things. There’s the dough. After it rises, we have to punch it down before we can bake it.”
I looked up. The smile he gave me was crooked and a part of me wanted to reach for it, to use my stained fingertips to prod it back into the shape I remembered. I didn’t move. Neither of us did as the snow came down and covered up the mess we’d made on the pavement.
But I wanted to, and that was – something.