They gathered just before sunset. Turing, Lilly, Wiress and her husband Perrin crept to the back door of the house. Turing gave a couple of sharp knocks. The door opened a crack, and they saw a familiar face.
"Welcome," said Beetee. "Please, come in."
He had prepared nearly two weeks for this. The house was clean from top to bottom. The table had been carefully laid out. Over the course of several days, his friends had found excuses to bring over the food, assembling the meal piece by piece so as not to catch attention. He had cleared his home of all the bread he could find, except for the special kind, hidden at the bottom of his usual order last week without his having to ask. Tam the baker was not one who practiced, but he was a good neighbour.
They hurried with the last-minute preparations. Beetee had swept for bugs that morning, and did a last-minute, perfunctory check right now. Wiress drew the curtains. Turing checked Beetee's alarm system, built from years of interference by authorities of all kinds. Perrin brought the plate to the table. It held an animal bone, a bowl of salt water with vegetables laid next to it, a small pile of herbs and roots, a paste of wine and nuts, and an egg cooked and peeled. Beetee passed small black caps to Perrin and Turing, and the group of five took their places.
"Thank you, everyone," said Beetee. "I'm glad you all got here safely. I know the celebration's a little different, this year - but I know we'll give it our very best, too. We always have. Let's get started."
After a prayer over the wine, they passed around a bowl of plain water and silently washed their hands.
"The parsley," said Lilly. It, too, was passed around, along with the salt water. Each person in turn dipped a piece of the vegetable into the water, letting it catch the drops. It looked, as Beetee knew it should, exactly like tears.
Wiress held up the plate of matzah, which was just out of Beetee's reach. Her hand shook, but Perrin steadied it. She gave him a small, strained smile. Beetee took the middle piece and broke it, returning half to the plate and saving the other for later on.
"Thanks, Wiress," he said softly, earning another smile from his friend. He bit his lip.
Everyone looked to Beetee expectantly. He picked up the book, though after all this time he hardly needed it.
"Turing, as the youngest," he said, as he did every year, "you begin."
The younger man nodded. He straightened in his chair, adjusted his glasses, and asked, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
Beetee responded as was commanded, describing how they changed their behaviour one night of every year, in commemoration of people who had lived in oppression long ago. A dangerous narrative, in Panem.
It should be a child asking, he thought sadly, rather than a man who had won the Hunger Games over ten years ago. That was how it had been done when he was a boy. But then, children had never been a consideration for any of them.
"Let's tell the story together," said Perrin. This was not how it usually happened - they tended to leave the entire thing to Beetee, who told it with the greatest skill - but this was a strange year, and they all knew it by heart anyway. If this was truly the end for them, maybe it was best that they all join in.
"That's an excellent idea," said Beetee. "Do you remember how it begins?"
Perrin spoke of the Israelites, who had come to Egypt after a famine and had been forced into slavery. (Were these real places, Beetee wondered even now? Were they countries like Canada and the United States had once been, or were they like Districts, or were they just stories after all?) He told of the wicked Pharaoh's decree against the Israelite babies, and the brave mother who had sent her son down the river.
Here Wiress picked up, encouraged by the others. She haltingly told of Moses's pampered life in the royal court, and his exile after killing the worker. How he left for the southern lands shortly after, and married Zipporah. When she spoke of the burning bush, she seemed to light up herself, telling it with more animation than Beetee had seen from her in years. In her enthusiasm, she knocked over the bowl of salt water, and this brought her to a halt. She stared at the stain on the tablecloth, giving her host a nervous glance.
"Don't worry about it," said Beetee. "It's just a bit of water."
She looked unconvinced. Perrin put his arm around her. They let the moment pass. Everyone had grown used to her idiosyncrasies, after almost thirty years.
When Beetee thought she had settled, he transitioned smoothly into the Ten Plagues. As he told of the pain brought to the Egyptians, he wondered how such a thing might work in real life, though he stopped just short of wishing it. Indeed, this was the time when they dipped their fingers in the wine, leaving ten drops on their plates as a reminder of the suffering of others.
Lilly verged on tears throughout, and when Turing got to the part where the Sea divided in two to let the fleeing Israelites pass, she choked back a sob.
"We can take a break if you need," said Beetee.
She shook her head. "I'm okay. It's just - "
"We understand," said Perrin softly.
Lilly buried her face in her hands. Turing stood up and came to her side, whispering something in her ear. Beetee knew that they had cared for each other all these years, ever since Turing won his Games, but it had always been a hopeless cause - now more so than ever. Still, after a moment she gave a great sigh. She raised her head to look at her friends.
"I'm sorry," she told them. "Let's go on."
The others hesitated.
"Please," she said. "I want to finish the story."
Beetee finally took it up, sensing that no one else would.
"They got past the sea," he continued. "We know that. And then the water came down and drowned the army. The Israelites went into the desert, and they were there forty years with Moses, but they made it to the Promised Land. And that wasn't the end, but it was what happened. They made it."
Wiress gave a grave nod. "And that's the story," she said, matter-of-factly.
They moved on to the blessings. Again, Beetee took the lead. It was easier that way.
He knew that around District Three, there were other families doing the same thing, always behind closed doors, when they thought they might be safe. Though the law said that religious belief was punishable by death, Peacekeepers could usually be persuaded to ignore the gatherings that went on throughout the year.
Every Friday night, half a dozen homes in the District suddenly went quiet, the excuse being that they were spending time together after a long workweek. Several more joined them for a few days each autumn, whispering New Year greetings where no one could hear, taking a day without food even when the Tech Centre demanded their labor.
Springtime brought out the highest number of observers, though, as up to ten percent of the District marked the holiday in some way. Some simply held a quiet dinner in their homes; others followed the book to the letter. No matter what, though, most households told the story, the secret story of Moses and the Pharaoh and the God who had helped bring the people out of slavery.
His parents had explained these things to him from the time he was old enough to keep a secret, emphasizing that no one else could know. The Latiers had been part of a dwindling few even then. It was well-known that his mother's uncle had been taken away and never seen again for his indiscretion, and the few remaining families who were suspected of practicing were watched very closely. Since the passing of his mother, he was the only one in the District who could read the old language. The others were working from memory alone.
He knew from his friend Wynne that some in District Nine followed the same practices, albeit slightly differently from Three. Haymitch had once mentioned a group in District Twelve who painted eggs in the springtime, disappearing beyond the fence to a secret place where two wooden boards had been tied together. Haymitch didn't understand it himself, but he knew enough to leave them alone. Most of Panem's children heard the bits and pieces that were called The Old Stories - the man who lived inside a giant fish, the boy with a beautiful coat whose brothers had treated him so cruelly, the baby born in a stable under an enormous star. Not everyone believed in every story, or any of them, but in general they were known. Beetee suspected that there were many more out there, besides the mouldering fragments that were occasionally found and hidden away.
In District Three, the story of Moses was the one that endured, though no one would have admitted to knowing it. In a cold, unyielding world, spent designing and assembling endless technology for the sake of those in power, it wasn't hard to understand why.
"All right," he said, when he had finished the prayers and they had tasted the bitter herbs. "Let's eat!"
Lilly, who had stopped crying, brought out the main meal. It was always the same food. Fish that Turing had caught in the river. Hard-boiled eggs prepared by Wiress, who could do little in the kitchen, but was proud of this. They couldn't dip them in salt water this year since she had spilled it, but no one mentioned it. Perrin would gather wild rice from the outskirts of town. At this time of year, they could usually find fresh vegetables at the greengrocer's. Someone shelled out for Capitol wine, both for ceremonial purposes and to go with the meal.
A few years ago, Beetee had added another prayer, for those families who would never be able to have a feast like this. People who could never fill a plate with the required items, let alone prepare a festive meal. In a better world he would have made sure they had what they needed, but with Peacekeepers breathing down their necks, he didn't dare.
They finished the meal with the piece of matzah that Beetee had put aside, then concluded with another blessing and the final cup of wine. Finally, Beetee motioned for them to join hands. He looked upon his friends, survivors all of them. Even at this dark time, they were there to keep each other going.
"Next year in Jerusalem," they said together, as always.
Like most years, the discussion turned to speculation on what Jerusalem might have been. It was a place, everyone agreed, and probably a city, but the consensus ended there. Wiress pictured it as green and lush, since they had to go through the desert before they got to the Promised Land (where she was sure it was). Turing thought it might have been the main city of Panem long ago, when the Old People ruled the land, and it had drowned when the oceans rose up.
Beetee kept this to himself, but he wasn't sure if Jerusalem had ever been there - if the stories of Moses and the others were anything but legends to comfort them. However, the others were so convinced of Jerusalem's existence, and indeed some believed that it might be out there still, that he didn't dare suggest otherwise - especially not now.
"Maybe - " Turing began.
"What?" Wiress asked.
Turing seemed very uneasy, but they pressed him to continue.
"Maybe Jerusalem is where you go - you know, after you die. Maybe that's what they mean."
The table fell silent. This would be the last one, they all knew. The Quarter Quell had been announced a few weeks ago. Barring a miracle, two of the four Victors would not be with them next year, in Jerusalem or anywhere else.
"That could be, Turing," said Beetee. He tried to sound reassuring - Wiress had gone very pale. "I don't think we can ever really know these things."
"It's stupid, I know -"
Beetee shook his head. "It's as good a guess as any."
"What do you think?" Lilly asked.
He paused to consider. His friends were waiting so eagerly. The last thing he wanted was to let them down.
"I think Jerusalem is a place of safety," he said, "and a place of hope. I wish I knew more about it. But you know, sometimes I don't think it really matters, what it is or what it used to be. It's something we can remember when we need to. I mean, if the Israelites can make it -"
He broke off, unsure if this was the right thing to say. Surprisingly, though, the others seemed to accept his theory. Turing nodded solemnly. Wiress had visibly relaxed, to his relief. Lilly was staring off into space, contented. She even had the hint of a smile.
Even if it wasn't strictly real, he thought, maybe it had a purpose after all.
"A last glass of wine before you go?" he asked. They all agreed. Beetee knew that no one was eager to go home, and he was glad to have them as long as they wanted. Time was rapidly running out for them, but tonight - tonight was all theirs.
The decision of who would go to the Quell dragged on for weeks, with good arguments for each one. Each one in turn claimed that their own expertise would be most useful in the arena. Turing said that the older ones should be allowed to live out their golden years in peace, while Beetee countered that he and Lilly had their whole lives ahead of them. No one wanted to send Wiress, as she was the only one with any family, and they could not imagine gentle Perrin alone.
With a month to go before the Reaping, Plutarch Heavensbee sent the message that changed everything, and all discussion went out the window. It no longer mattered which names were called; when the papers were drawn, it was Beetee and Wiress who got on the train.
It was well over a year before he returned to Three, something he had never expected to do. Tired and old beyond his fifty-seven years, dependent on a cane and scarred in body and soul, he had survived to return home - though it felt like something of a mixed blessing.
In Thirteen, time tended to blur together, but he had managed to keep track of the calendar enough to observe the important days. Alone, it was sometimes difficult to arrange, and when he did a part of him insisted that it was all pointless. At the same time, they had kept going since before the Dark Days. A little thing like solitude seemed trivial in comparison. Finnick, may he rest in peace, had taken time from his own duties to make sure that Beetee was undisturbed and had what he needed. He hoped that Annie would be all right - as much as she could be. Once he finished what he had set out to do, he would pay her a visit, just to check in.
Three was much the same as it had always been, despite the damaged buildings and the razed Tech Center. He saw some of his old friends hanging around the main square. Tam the baker was among them, and gave him a wave, surprisingly cheerful given the circumstances. Beetee knew that they had probably lost family and friends, that many people he remembered would not be there to greet him. Others were missing their homes and livelihoods. They had been dealt a harsh blow. Somehow, though, the group of men could still trade jokes and gossip in the square. They could laugh together. As always, his people would find it in themselves to rebuild.
The Victor's Village lay mostly intact, but empty and eerily quiet. Though he had known from the reports that no Victors outside of Thirteen were believed to have survived, part of him had still held out hope. He knew right away that there was none. The windowsills had gathered dust, and some had broken panes. Lilly's front door had been taken off its hinges. They were nowhere to be found, as he had expected. Even Perrin, who had never entered an arena, had been lost, all for the crime of marrying his wife.
There were traces of them everywhere. Turing's closet was still organized methodically, everything in its place. Lilly had painted her bedroom walls in bright colours, with great big flourishes. Wiress and Perrin's marriage quilt lay neatly folded at the end of the bed. He lingered much longer than he should have. These were the places where he had spent so many good times, home to the family he had made for himself, things that were rare and precious when one had been through the Games.
He took the silver cup from Turing's house, and the books and candlesticks from Lilly's. In the false bottom of Wiress and Perrin's dresser, he found the brass candelabrum with nine branches. And of course, buried in his own cellar was the box of supplies. Men's skullcaps stacked neatly, a dog-eared book written in the old language, a white shawl with fringes on the ends, phylacteries carefully wrapped, a necklace with a star that his mother had never dared to wear. Scrounged together over centuries, hidden carefully through tyrannical Presidents and rebellions and dozens of raids. Nothing had been disturbed. For that, at least, he could be grateful.
Resolute, he carefully carried the precious things to the Justice Building. Mayor Malden was in his office, miraculously the same as the year before, if a little grayer around the temples. His eyes widened as Beetee opened the box.
"I have no one," said Beetee. "Neither did they. I know they'd want these things to be put to use in the District."
Mayor Malden slowly nodded, unable to look away from the treasure before him. Beetee wasn't surprised. He knew that the Mayor himself drew his curtains on Friday night.
"Here's what I'm suggesting," he said. "There's a library in the Capitol, sealed all these years. It's full of books from the Old People. Some of us have gotten permission to take a look. I'll be going next week to do some research." He picked up his book, the one written in the Old Language, which held wonders that even he could hardly comprehend. "I'm tired of living for wires and gadgets. I want to look for different answers. So much has been lost. There are a lot of things we don't understand, about our own history. We're free now - we can finally be in the open. I want to do this right. Do we have anyone who's with us?"
"We do," said the Mayor. "I've already been asked about it, in fact. If you go, you'll certainly have my support - and I won't be the only one." He looked back at Beetee doubtfully. "You will be back, won't you?"
"As soon as I can," he promised. "Will you take care of this for me?"
"I'll guard it with my life." The Mayor had never looked more excited, in all the years they had known each other; there was something like hunger in his eyes, hunger and an unmistakable hope. "Tell me what you find, Beetee. I think we'd all like to hear it."
When Passover - or Pesach, as they now officially called it - came around the following spring, all work was shut down and the schools were let out. Mayor Malden invited anyone who wished to join him at his personal Seder. Over forty came, seated in his spacious meeting room at half a dozen tables.
Beetee could not remember a better time for celebration. The Tech Center was near restoration, expected to be in working order by the end of the summer. There had been ten babies born over the winter, and nine were still alive. A group had begun to experiment with growing food. Relief shipments were steadily coming in from the Capitol, along with letters from his friends in other Districts, who were getting along in their own ways. And just last month the Mayor's daughter had been wed under a canopy, right in the middle of the town square, the first to do so since before the Dark Days.
At Beetee's signal, the chattering guests became quiet. Four-year-old Tessa Ware walked to the front, confident in her stride even as all eyes were upon her. Beetee and the Mayor stood waiting for her.
"Ready?" Beetee asked.
The little girl nodded. He gave her an encouraging smile and motioned for her to go ahead. She turned to the room full of people.
"Why is this night," she asked, her voice strong and clear, "different from other nights?"
And as he gave his answer, the rabbi knew that they had built something good.