Now they had everything that they wanted, and everything was as good as it could be.
~ East of the Sun and West of the Moon, retold by Kathleen and Michael Hague
I press up onto my tiptoes and stretch my right arm as high as it will go – and still I barely brush it with my fingertips. The kissing bough gives a smug sway above my head, and I sink back onto my heels on the step-stool with a grunt of frustration.
This is my job now: to take down the kissing bough at the end of New Year's Day and put it on the fire. I have no father or brothers, and with Katniss gone, I'm the oldest child in the household, so the duty falls to me.
When Katniss was my age – a tiny little thing, all skin and bones and big hollow eyes – she was hunting and trading at the Hob. These days she's not much bigger than me and yet she she's living in the wild woods outside Twelve, hunting rabbits and turkeys and deer – just as well as Granny Ashpet used to do, Mom says – and even tanning their skins to make clothes for Peeta.
I refuse to be defeated by a silly evergreen branch tied with ribbons.
I crouch a little and spring up off the stool, swinging both arms overhead. The fingers of my right hand smack solidly into the needles, making me yelp, and I land hard on the stool. It creaks and wobbles worryingly, but before it can topple over – and take me with it – there's a strong hand at my back, steadying me and the stool beneath my feet.
"So you really don't like my beard?" Marko murmurs.
I turn, cross and flushed, and find myself looking directly into a pair of merry blue eyes. Marko stands head and shoulders above me on the ground, a difference that's just accounted for by the height of the step-stool.
It's not just his beard that he's let grow since the first heavy snow in December: his pale curls, dulled by winter, are shaggy and tumble about his face. He looks like the golden bear-man in the tales his father tells me over tea and cookies. Broad as a barn with arms like oak trunks and hair the color of freshly baked bread, he always wins the day and the youngest daughter of a poor man; a feisty maiden with yellow braids and, more often than not, a strong arm with an axe.
"It makes you look silly," I retort and turn away, bouncing up on my toes to take another unsuccessful swipe at the bough.
Before my heels touch down again, a big hand reaches above me and plucks the bough from its hook as easily as a ripe apple. I scowl in a passable imitation of Katniss and Marko dutifully sets the bough in my arms. "I'll look sillier without it," he warns. "You're used to it now."
I shrug this away and hop off the stool, but he picks it up before I can and carries it behind the counter for me. Marko's always helpful, ridiculously so, but for some reason it bothers me tonight.
When he returns to me, I notice the red ribbon twined between the fingers of his left hand, and he holds it up with a chuckle. "You know, between Dad and Luka," he says, "I'm lucky to get one of these for myself."
With his lazy smile and hazel-flecked eyes, Luka Mellark has countless sweethearts. They were lining up outside the back door when I left the bakery a few minutes ago: a gaggle of giggling Merchant girls, waiting to kiss him and tie a red ribbon around his sleeve.
"Why your dad?" I wonder. "He and your mom don't seem very…sentimental."
"It's not for Mom," he replies dryly. "He takes the first red ribbon off the bough and puts it away in a drawer, and every year he buys another one and does the same thing."
I frown. That sounds a bit like what Mom did with Dad's things after he died, and I wonder whether Mr. Mellark lost someone himself when he was young, perhaps even to the Games. "He lost a sweetheart?" I guess.
Marko nods. "A long time ago," he says. "He asked her to marry him and she said no, and…well, he's never really forgotten her. I doubt he can even think of anyone else when it comes to sweetheart ribbons."
Somehow this strikes me as even sadder than if his girl had died. Mr. Mellark is a very good-looking man, even with his grays, and his winter beard only makes him cozier. A strong, handsome, bearded man who always smells of bread. I'd hugged him extra long when I left the bakery a few minutes ago; he was so warm and smelled so good and even pressed a kiss to my forehead.
"Your dad must have been a looker when he was young," I venture, "and he was the oldest son, so whoever married him would have inherited a nice living."
Marko gives a sad chuckle. "'All that and a bakery to put it in,' Aunt Rooba used to say."
I picture that for a moment: young Mr. Mellark, all sunny curls and broad shoulders and bubbling over with love for his girl. He wrestled in school, like his boys, so he would have been fit and strong, and his parents, by all accounts, were good, kind people with a bounty of food on their table. A girl in Twelve could do no better. "Why would any girl turn him down?" I ask.
Marko looks at me for a very long moment, pressing his lips together in thought. "Because she married your dad," he says finally.
"Oh!" I squeak, bringing a hand to my mouth, but somehow it feels like I knew this already.
I've been watching Mom and Mr. Mellark ever since he brought that first hamper of food to our old house in the Seam, the morning after Peeta came to make his bargain with Katniss. Mom can be sullen and abrasive – it's her that Katniss gets it from, not Dad – and she's had some awful days since Katniss left us. The first morning that Katniss was gone, Mr. Mellark came over and cooked a huge delicious breakfast for us. Mom had spent the whole night at the table, drinking coffee and worrying herself sick, and when he tried, so gently, to wake her, she yelled at him and chased him out of the house, claiming that the whole thing – Peeta's bargain, taking Katniss away – was his fault.
She's softened a little since then, but more often than not, she still minces around the baker like Buttercup with his hackles up. But nothing seems to put him off.
I think of how tender he is with her, even when she's railing at him. How his eyes sweep a room until they find her, then linger on her face, her hands, her hair. How he brings over a pouch of his special coffee with almonds and spices every Sunday afternoon, even though we're well able to afford all of the ingredients and blend it ourselves.
How he called her a name I'd never heard before, the morning after Katniss left, when he tried to wake her. Lyssa –
"Anyway, things are right and tight now," Marko goes on. "Your father was a good man, and Mom and Dad…they make things work, you know?"
I nod, understanding more than he realizes. I've observed enough of his parents' marriage to see what 'making things work' looks like. Mr. Mellark rises early, goes to bed late, and spends his waking hours in the kitchen or making deliveries while his wife manages the accounts and rings up customers. They share a room, but I doubt they share the bed in it.
My parents' marriage could not have been more different. They had so little time together, thanks to Dad's twelve-hour mining shifts, that they cherished every moment. They were always kissing and cuddling, bringing each other little treats, singing songs, helping each other dress – or undress.
For the briefest moment I let myself wonder what would have happened if Mr. Mellark had married Mom after Dad died. Divorce is expensive but not impossible, and I've heard it from more than one person that the baker only married Raisa Brognar because she was pregnant with Marko. Got his heart broken, didn't he? Rooba told me once. I'd hoped Raisa could patch it up for him, but it was the boys who did it, really – and little Peeta most of all.
I hadn't thought twice about her words then – Rooba's good-hearted but coarse, and she delights in saying things that confuse me or make me blush – but after what Marko's just told me, the pieces are falling into place. It was my mother that Mr. Mellark loved and asked to be his wife, but she refused him and broke his heart. She left behind her family and livelihood for a sooty Seam house and a wonderful marriage with Dad, and Mr. Mellark kept his home and the bakery and wound up in a hollow marriage with a bitter woman that he didn't love.
It's hard not to think that it would have been best for all concerned if Mom had just married Mr. Mellark to begin with. Who knows if any of us would have been the product of that union, but at least there would have been no poverty or hunger, no angry cuffs across their children's cheeks, no waking nightmare of losing a husband and father to a mine explosion.
Mom would have been a perfect baker's wife, making magic with sugar and spices and her long white fingers.
I chase this thought from my mind like a spider with a broom and turn my attention to the ribbon in Marko's hand. "So you're headed to the creamery?" I ask. I tease him every now and again about his dairymaid sweetheart, but tonight the words are strangely sour on my tongue.
Marko's been sweet on Greta since he was my age; since they were in school together. Luka's told me countless stories of him slipping extra cookies into her parcels or sending her home with a pie when she paid for a small loaf of bread, but he's never found the nerve to ask her to walk out with him, and she's never given him more than the pleasant smile she shares with everyone.
With her honey-butter braids and skin as smooth and white as goat's milk, Greta's the perfect match for folktale-Marko with his shaggy curls and ash-blond beard.
"No," he replies with a small, shy smile, barely discernible in the thicket of his beard. "I'm headed here."
"Here?" I puzzle, trying to think what business would bring him to the apothecary shop on New Year's night, let alone with a red ribbon. "Why?"
His cheeks, always a little flushed, deepen to crimson above his beard and he looks down, scuffing the toe of one heavy boot against the other. "Well, I thought," he says, "it's New Year's night, and I know an apothecary-in-training who needs a red ribbon for her braid."
My heart skips and stumbles, as though at a rock in its path. "You mean me?" I whisper.
He looks up, wearing the widest grin I've ever seen. "Of course you, silly," he teases. "If you want it, I mean."
I'm old enough to know that a sweetheart ribbon doesn't mean much when given to someone under the age of fifteen, but I'm still young enough to be thrilled by it. It's like the giver telling you that you're pretty, and while Marko's said things like that to me before, this is a tangible sort of compliment. One I can wear in my braid tomorrow, for everyone in the district to see.
I nod eagerly and bring my braid over my shoulder so he can thread the ribbon through it. "I've never had a red ribbon before," I tell him. "Just a white one from Dad that we reused every year."
"That makes me happier than it should," he murmurs. He catches up the tail of my braid in one big hand and strokes it between his thumb and forefinger.
"Why is that?" I wonder, frowning. Marko's the nicest man I know; happy with his life and position and never begrudging anyone anything. Why would it upset him if someone else gave me a red ribbon?
He slips one end of the ribbon into my plait and carefully weaves it through; a wide strand of vibrant satin against my pale hair. "Your mother was a beauty in her youth," he says quietly, "and you're dangerously close to becoming one yourself. In another couple of years, boys will be lined up at your back door to offer you ribbons and kisses as their sweetheart."
Something in these words makes me hot and uncomfortable and cross all over again, as though I'm destined to end up like my mother, breaking the hearts of good men like Mr. Mellark – or worse yet, like Luka with his giggling chain of sweethearts. "I don't want any boys with ribbons and kisses," I say, turning to catch his eye. "Or sweethearts."
He tilts his head, considering. "But you want this one?" he asks, giving my braid a gentle tug.
"I said I did, didn't I?" I answer. His words are making my head hazy. I thought I knew what we were talking about, but these responses are confusing me.
"And the kiss?" he asks softly, and my heart skips again.
"I've never had one of those either," I tell him. "So: yes, if you want."
Several of my classmates have had their first kisses already. Soft, they reveal in tittering whispers. Wet. Strange. There's no boy that I want to kiss, and anyway, I know that's not what Marko's suggesting. He means to kiss me like his father did earlier tonight: a brief brush of lips and whiskers against my forehead.
His eyes go wide and very bright, and his mouth drops open a little. "I wish I could pretend that didn't make me happy," he says, and he lifts me up by my hips, making me gasp in surprise, and sits me down on the sales counter.
We're roughly eye-to-eye again, with my knees on either side of his ribs and the kissing bough in my lap, and Marko gives me a blushing smile. "I got a bit excited there," he says apologetically, "but considering how little you are, this might be a good idea down the road."
This makes even less sense than his perplexing words about sweethearts, and I'm prompted by a strange impatience to say, "So kiss me, then."
"Nothing would make me happier," he replies, his smile softening. He touches my braid again, running one finger along its length, from the crown of my head where the ribbon starts to the tail, where a few inches of ribbon extend beyond. Then he rests his big hands on the counter on either side of my hips, so close that I can feel their warmth through the cotton of my skirt, and leans in to press his lips to my cheek.
I feel a split second of disappointment that he didn't kiss me on the mouth. I knew better than to expect that, but after all his strange words of ribbons and kisses and his happiness that I'd yet to be given either one, part of me had wondered, maybe even hoped.
But then his lips move against my cheek and I give a little gasp. It feels nothing like being kissed by his father – or mine, from what I remember of it. I don't feel his lips: I feel his mouth, soft and warm against my skin, and the oddly pleasant bristle of his beard. My chest burns, but I'm not sure if it's because of his kiss or because I haven't breathed since it began.
He leans back, smiling again – or still – and touches my cheek, just above where he kissed me. "Happy New Year, Prim," he says.
He puts his hands on my waist to help me down again, but I shake my head. "D-Don't you want yours?" I ask, reaching for one of the red ribbons tied around the bough in my lap.
It's a bold thing I'm doing; ridiculous, really. Marko's twenty-one and I'm twelve and a half. For me to offer a red ribbon to someone so far out of my league is equivalent to saying that I like him, the way my classmates like his brother Luka or Gale Hawthorne. Impossibly beautiful boys with a crowd of pretty admirers their own age, who would never look twice at a twelve-year-old girl or even give her the time of day.
To such a boy – man – a red ribbon isn't so much a request to be my sweetheart as a declaration that I have a crush on him, and my cheeks flush accordingly.
Marko's mouth drops open and he lets go of my waist, as though I burned him. "Prim," he says, "you don't have to do that. You don't have to give me a ribbon just because I gave you one."
"I'm not an idiot," I retort, my temper rising with my color as I untie a ribbon from the bough. "I know how the ribbons work…a-and what they mean."
"Do you?" he wonders, so softly that I'm not sure I was meant to hear.
"I like you, okay?" I snap, looking up at him, flame-faced. "Your pies and your smile and your stupid beard. Now do you want your ribbon or not?"
His brows fly up to his hairline, though his lips are curved in a smile so wide that it rounds his cheeks above his beard. "So you do like it," he murmurs, rubbing his beard with the backs of his fingers.
"I like everything about you, Marko Mellark," I whisper, as the flames in my cheeks spread to my forehead and my chest. "Your hair and your hands and…and everything."
His smile fades, but he doesn't quite seem angry. He looks troubled, as though I've just given him a riddle he can't begin to solve, or maybe a riddle that he knew the answer to at once, but it can't possibly be the right one. "Well, then," he says, and his voice is a little hoarse. "I guess you'd better tie that ribbon on me."
I turn him a little and slip the ribbon around his left arm, just above the elbow. Our houses are so close that they practically share a wall, so he came over without a coat. His arm is covered only by the linen of his dress shirt, and it's warm from his skin beneath.
Marko's arms are so thick with muscle that it takes the slightest tug to snug the ribbon, then I loop the ends into a bow. It's a bit like tying a ribbon around a tree trunk – and just as ridiculous, I suppose – but the look in his eyes when I finish is anything but ridiculous. "Thank you, Prim," he says, tracing the ribbon and its bow with the strong fingers of his right hand. "This means more to me than you can imagine."
His hands go to my waist again, to lift me back down to the floor, but I catch hold of his waistcoat with both hands to stop him. The dark red velvet, warmed by his skin, feels like a dream beneath my fingers. "Would you stop trying to put me down," I tell him, "and let me kiss you?"
He gives a strange little laugh but duly withdraws his hands. "That's how it works, isn't it?" he says. "Well, if you want..."
Do I want to kiss him? I hardly know. I like Marko; that much I know for certain, but he infuriates me at the same time. Right now I'd just as soon throttle him as kiss him, and my cheeks burn at the prospect of either one. But I'm unlikely to have another chance at a kiss; not before next New Year's, at least, and so I bring both hands to cup his face.
His ashy thicket of beard spans from the edges of his cheekbones to the underside of his jaw and is at once soft and coarse beneath my fingers. I never imagined I'd touch it at all, let alone like this, and I run my fingertips through the curls, curiously, the way I would stroke Buttercup. "See?" he teases, but his voice is slightly shaky. "It's not so bad once you get used to it. I'll shave it off come spring, and I guarantee you'll miss it."
He's right. I miss it already, at the mere suggestion of it going away. I want to lean in and nuzzle his cheek with mine, the way I used to do with Dad when his beard grew thick at midwinter, but I know it would only make me look sillier in Marko's eyes. So instead I do what I'm supposed to: I tilt my head and press a kiss to his left cheekbone, just above where his beard starts.
It's over too quickly for me to notice anything except the give of his skin beneath my lips. I slip my hands from his face, certain my own must be on fire, but he catches them in his with a small, shy smile.
"So that's where the pair of you got to."
I start at the sound of Mom's voice and turn to see her just a few feet away, behind the counter. She's still wearing her coat, and in the crook of one arm is an enameled canister with a red ribbon tied around it. Her New Year's gift from the Mellarks – from Mr. Mellark, more like. A decorative tin filled with coffee.
Marko lets go of my hands at once and steps away from me. "Begging your pardon, Mrs. Everdeen," he says. "I came by with a ribbon for Primrose, and she needed some help with the bough."
"So I can see," Mom replies, the corners of her mouth twitching. She looks like she wants to smile and scowl and can't quite make up her mind as to which to do first. "I think your father's about to burn your own, if you're wanting to be there for that."
"I'd best," he says. "We're one short already with Peeta gone away, and with Luka at the back door with his girls, it'll be Mom and Dad alone with the bough. Hardly a cozy gathering."
He takes the bough from me to set on the counter then offers both hands to help me down. "I'll be 'round in the morning with bread and sticky buns," he tells us both. "Happy New Year, Mrs. Everdeen – Prim." He touches my braid one last time, tracing the silky fourth strand of his red ribbon with a fingertip, then he dips behind the counter with a nod to my mother and heads through the workroom toward the back door.
Mom says nothing till we hear the door close behind him. The smile has won out on her lips but the scowl lingers in her eyes. "So," she says for the third time. "You have a sweetheart."
"I do not," I snap, scooping up the bough. My blushes of the last few minutes are nothing compared to the heat in my face at discussing this with Mom. "I'm not sweet on Marko or anything, and he just…thinks I'm nice or something, I don't know. He came by to give me a ribbon so I gave him one in return. That's all there was to it."
"And the kisses?" she wonders.
I consider how long she must have been here to have seen that and blush so hotly that my vision swims. "That's how it works," I remind her. "Ribbons are always exchanged with a kiss."
"And the red ones are for sweethearts," she reminds me in turn, very quietly. Her eyes are soft now; whatever had raised the scowl, however briefly, is gone. But I look at the canister in her hands and see onlyred.
"I suppose you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?" I say.
I've never spoken to her like this before, and her mouth drops open in shock. "What's that supposed to mean?" she asks.
I know this is the wrong time and place, but my blood is running hot and fast and pounding at my temples, and I can't stand her suggesting that I've done something bad when I know now what she did and it's much worse. "Why didn't you ever tell us that Mr. Mellark asked you to marry him?" I demand.
Her eyes widen for a split second, proving Marko's story beyond a shadow of a doubt, then her expression closes up as tight as a blossom at nightfall. "Because it didn't matter," she says.
"Didn't matter?" I echo in angry disbelief.
"Doesn't matter," she amends firmly. "Not before, and certainly not now."
"Really?" I challenge. "I think a drawerful of sweetheart ribbons might suggest otherwise."
Her eyes narrow at this, but I heard her breath catch first. "What are you talking about?" she whispers.
"I don't know," I retort. "Why don't you ask him yourself, Lyssa?"
The color bleeds from Mom's face, but I'm too angry – at both her and myself – to stick around for more. I push past her and storm upstairs, where I throw the kissing bough onto the sofa before going to my room.
I want to start the day over again; to be the Prim I was twelve hours ago, eating snow ice cream and ginger cake for breakfast and laughing to find the bearded Mellarks on our doorstep, red-cheeked and singing with varying degrees of tunefulness, with a parcel of pie and cookies for our lunch. Everything is different and wrong now. I can't ever interact with Mr. Mellark like I used to, knowing that he loved –still loves – my mother, and Marko…He came by to give me a ribbon and a little New Year's kiss, and Mom's ruined everything by trying to make it into something more significant. No twenty-one-year-old Merchant's son chooses a twelve-year-old for his sweetheart, and I won't be able to look him in the eye for weeks now after what she said.
I'm twelve and a half, and I've never wanted so badly to be younger. To be six or seven or even ten; to have Katniss here, gruff and strong and so beautiful, looking out for me. None of this would have happened if Katniss hadn't gone away.
None of it, I realize with a chill down my spine. Neither this home nor the shop nor the food on our table. We would be dead of cold or hunger right now if Katniss hadn't gone to live with Peeta – and no thanks to Mom, I add bitterly. Mr. Mellark is the kindest man I've ever met, and he would never have let us starve or live as desperately as we did before Peeta's bargain. Mom must have hurt him very badly for him to not even have tried to help.
I tug off my pretty New Year's clothes, eager to climb into bed and bury my woes in Buttercup's fur, but here as well, something is wrong. I feel damp and sticky between my legs, and I tug down my underwear to find a small patch of blood on the fabric.
As an apothecary's daughter, I know multiple reasons why a girl would bleed between her legs, and I know straightaway what this is, even though it's the first time it's ever happened to me. I'm the right age for it; I just hadn't expected it so soon, especially considering how long it took for Katniss. She hid it well, like some appalling sort of secret, but I paid attention. I knew when she needed willow bark tea and tried to get Buttercup to lie in her lap, in lieu of the warm bricks that Merchant girls use to ease menstrual pains. That part never quite worked out, but she appreciated the effort.
I grab fresh underthings and go to the bathroom to clean myself up. If it weren't for Katniss, I wouldn't know about the rag-bag either. That is, I'd know about it – it hung on a crooked nail in one corner of our wretched toilet-closet in the Seam, impossible to overlook – but not what its contents were for. Merchant girls buy special linen squares and bleach them after each use, but Katniss made do with the scraps of our oldest underthings, cut to rags of somewhat uniform size, and washed them in our harsh laundry soap.
Whatever Mom does – assuming she still has a cycle – she hides it even better than Katniss did. But she took the rag-bag when we packed our things at the Seam house, which suggests she either uses its contents herself or anticipated the day when I would.
I fold three rags into a makeshift pad and slip it between my underwear and my body. There's no pain yet, but the awareness of what's happening to me makes my abdomen feel heavy and strange, and I decide that a cup of tea – chamomile and fennel – might be a wise idea before bed.
I head for the kitchen, intent on ignoring Mom wherever she is and just making my tea to take back to my room, but then I see her through the living room doorway, sitting on the sofa. On the table in front of her is the kissing bough that I discarded so angrily a few minutes ago, and our second bough as well, the one that hung from the living room ceiling. As I watch, she unties the last of the red ribbons and folds it carefully, like she did back when Dad was alive and our bough boasted the same three ribbons every New Year's. She looks so sad by firelight – and at the same time, strikingly beautiful. She still wears her new dress of cranberry velvet, though she's discarded the pins to let her hair fall over one shoulder in a tangle of white-gold.
I sigh and walk into the room, and she looks up at the sound. "I'm sorry, Mom," I begin, but she's already shaking her head.
"No, I'm sorry, sweetheart," she says, reaching up to seat me beside her. "I didn't think about us being neighbors, or the likelihood that someone might say something to you. We were together for a long time, Janek and I, and many of our old friends now run the shops on the square. Was it Rooba who told you?" she asks, but my mind is caught back on together for a long time.
"You were 'together'?" I puzzle, frowning. "I thought – Marko just said – his father wanted to marry you –?"
"Oh, he did," she answers with a hollow laugh. "And I wanted to marry him too. We grew up together, the best of friends, and…I can't say we fell in love," she says, "because I can't remember a time before I loved him, or before he loved me."
I'm gaping at her, but she isn't quite finished. "We were always 'together,' really," she says. "Always sweethearts, and he was going to ask me to marry him after our last Reaping."
"So what happened?" I sputter. My brain is on fire at this news and my heart is breaking. A turned-down proposal, made to someone you admire, is one thing, but what Mom is describing is the sort of lifelong love that Peeta has for Katniss. It's heartbreaking enough to read her letters, to see her so oblivious to the love that's painted into the very walls of her fairytale home, but Mom knew that Mr. Mellark –Janek, I amend silently, shaping the name on my tongue – loved her, and she loved him back. How could she simply say no to all of that?
"You know what happened," Mom says, though her cheeks darken a little. "Your dad. I'd known him almost as long as Janni – Janek," she corrects quickly, her blush deepening. "He was six years older than me and came to the shop to sell things to my parents; roots and bark and herbs. And one day…one day I heard him singing in the woods," she says. "And I –"
"The woods?" I break in. "What were you doing out there?" Everyone knows Mom fell in love with Dad's voice, but this is the first I've heard of the woods playing a part. Mom never went to the woods, not even when Dad was alive.
"I wasn't – it doesn't matter," she says quickly, and her face is as red as her dress. I suspect it matters a great deal, but I know she's not going to tell me more than she already has. "That was the moment I began to fall in love with him," she says, "and I knew I couldn't marry Janek, not anymore."
I shake my head at this strange, bittersweet story. Dad loved Mom with all his heart, and he was the very best of men. However much he hated the Capitol and its cruelties, he knew his place in Twelve, and he would never have deliberately stolen a Merchant's daughter away from her sweetheart, let alone her almost-fiancé; the handsome son of the district baker.
"Why does he call you 'Lyssa'?" I whisper.
"He always did," she replies sadly. "'Janni' and 'Lyssa' were our nicknames when we were small. As we grew up we grew out of them, or tried to, but we still used them on each other to taunt or tease, and then we became sweethearts and…it didn't feel so childish anymore."
I think of Mr. Mellark trying to wake Mom that morning at the table. Of his strong fingers brushing her cheek, so tenderly, the way Dad used to touch her. Lyssa…wake up, sweetheart, he'd murmured. I've made you food. There had been nothing childish about it.
I hadn't caught the sweetheart then; I was too confused by the strange name that was and yet wasn't my mother's. But it further confirms Marko's account of red ribbons hidden in a drawer, and what my own eyes have suspected ever since Mr. Mellark brought that first hamper of food to our house. "He still loves you, Mom," I whisper.
She shakes her head slowly. "No, he doesn't, sweetheart," she says, and she tries to smile, but it's a weak, broken thing that barely reaches the corners of her mouth, let alone her eyes. "I left things very badly with him, on…on a number of occasions," she explains. "He genuinely likes you and Katniss – and always has, I think – but he's kind to me for Peeta's sake, nothing more."
That's what you think, I want to tell her, but I curb my tongue. I've caused enough hurt tonight already and opened plenty of old wounds with my angry words. "I think he's just a nice person," I say, and she gives a bitter laugh in reply.
"That he is," she agrees, touching my cheek with one slender finger. "But I'm less deserving of it than anyone."
She gets up and goes to the kitchen, leaving me alone with my thoughts, two empty kissing boughs, and a dozen neatly folded ribbons, only to return a few moments later with a large steaming mug, which she hands to me. I smell fennel and chamomile along with something earthy – willow bark, I realize.
"You know," I say, looking up at her in surprise.
"I had my suspicions," she replies with a smile; a genuine one this time, warm and maternal. She takes the tongs from the hearthside, lifts a brick from the fire that I hadn't noticed there earlier, and wraps it in a piece of flannel from her sewing basket like it's second nature. "We can talk about that too, if you want," she says gently, laying the wrapped brick in my lap.
I shake my head, though I tug the brick a little closer to rest against my abdomen. There's a low ache now; not quite pain, but the soothing heat is more than welcome. "I've helped you plenty with this kind of thing," I assure her, taking a grateful sip from the mug. "I know how it works."
"And Marko Mellark?" she wonders, sitting beside me again. Her eyes are bright and curious now, maybe even a little amused. "Are you clear on how that works?"
My face flushes all over again. "I told you," I say, "there's nothing going on with Marko and me. He brought me a New Year's ribbon and I gave him one in return."
"Red ribbons," she reminds me, reaching out to touch the bright fourth strand of my braid. "Sweetheart ribbons. That's what it means when you tie it around their sleeve, you know."
"Mom," I groan, "it wasn't –"
"I can't blame you," she goes on as though I hadn't interrupted, her eyes merrier than I've seen in years. "Marko's a fine young man. All that and a bakery to put it in," she teases, nudging my shin with her toes.
I glower back at her through my blush. "I like him, okay?" I say, exasperated. "I've liked him for a while. He's good-looking and he makes the most incredible pies and...I-I like him, Mom," I finish in a very small voice, dropping my gaze to the mug on my knees. "I like him a lot. But I'm twelve, for pity's sake, and he's twenty-one. Even assuming he liked me a little, nothing's ever going to come of it."
Her hand cups my cheek, a pleasant coolness against my flushed skin. "I wouldn't be so sure about that," she murmurs. Her eyes are soft and somber, no longer merry and teasing. "I think you're underestimating what it means to have a Mellark fall in love with you."
I swallow hard. I know better than to imagine that Marko is, or ever could be, in love with me, no matter how the prospect of it – of all that and a bakery to put it in – makes my heart flutter and my breath come short. But when it comes to being loved by a Mellark, my mother would know better than anyone – except Katniss, maybe, if she weren't so heartbreakingly blind.
I wonder if this might be the curse of the Mellarks: to love oblivious women. They can wear their hearts on their sleeves – or hold them out in their hands – and their girls see nothing more than a kind, good man, generous to a fault.
I glance meaningfully at the coffee canister Mom brought home. It sits between the kissing boughs, with a perfect red ribbon tied around its lid. "Maybe I'm not the only one," I say.
Mom follows my gaze and shakes her head. "It's just coffee, sweetheart," she says, almost sadly. She takes the canister in one hand, leans over to kiss my forehead, and gets up from the sofa.
"It's not, though, is it?" I say, looking up at her as the realization dawns. "He puts the almonds in because of you, doesn't he?"
I can't believe it took me so long to figure out. Mom loves almonds, but Dad could rarely afford to buy them for her, and once he died we were scraping by on whatever Katniss brought home: pine bark and blackbirds and rotting vegetables from the grocer's trash bin.
She'd nearly confessed to it the night Katniss left, but I'd been so confused by her irrational behavior that I hadn't paid attention to her words. Ja – Mr. Mellark – used to make this all the time when he was on earlies with his father, she'd said, and it never occurred to me to ask how she knew that. He stole the spices from the bakery stores, she'd explained. It made his dad furious – and of course, it made the coffee grinder taste like cinnamon. And he added the almonds because –
I half expect her to deny it, or to drop the subject like she did that night, but instead she gives me the saddest smile I've ever seen. "He always did," she says softly. "He wasn't the only one who had trouble getting out of bed at four o'clock in the morning."
With that she bends to press a kiss to the top of my head. "I thought I'd make up a pot before bed," she says, stroking my cheek with her fingers. "Would you like any?"
"I'm okay with this," I tell her, gesturing at my nearly full mug of tea. "But thanks, Mom."
She smiles, without sadness this time, and takes one of the kissing boughs in her free hand. "One here, one in the dining room?" she suggests.
I shake my head firmly, but a little of the New Year's merriment has returned at last. "We should burn the one from the shop in the fireplace down there," I say, and she chuckles.
"Too right you are," she agrees. "It's been forever since I've had more than one bough for burning. I'll run this one downstairs again."
I shake my head again and get up, setting aside my hot brick and tea to take the bough from her. "I brought it up," I remind her. "And I could use one last stretch before bed."
I pad barefoot down the cool wooden stairs and smile as I go. Minus the slight ache in my abdomen and the foreignness of folded rags between my legs, this feels like any other night in our luxurious new life. Mom and I both spoke our minds, yet somehow neither of us is angry anymore, and the prospect of a Mellark sweetheart no longer feels quite so immediate and terrifying.
I lay the bough on the shop hearth and stir it with the poker till the needles catch fire. Of course, at the end of the day the idea of Marko wanting me for a sweetheart, now or ever, is just plain ridiculous – as is the notion that kind, steady Mr. Mellark, for all that he cares for and admires my mother, would abandon his wife to be with her. Things will go on just as they always have. No red ribbon or shy New Year's kiss will change that.
Still, I can't help peeking out the kitchen window when I get back upstairs. Our sill and the Mellarks' are barely three feet apart; a determined sweetheart could climb across with ease if they truly wanted to. The Mellarks' kitchen is still fully lit at this hour, and Marko is at the stove, whisking a small pot of hot chocolate. He's discarded his velvet waistcoat over the back of a chair and loosed the buttons at his shirt collar, but he still wears my red ribbon tied around his left arm.
He looks enormous, all white and gold and bearded and beautiful. A golden bear-man, who kissed the youngest daughter of a poor man tonight and wove a sweetheart ribbon into her yellow braid.
I blush at the foolish thought, and then he's at the window, lifting the pane on his side with one strong hand. I raise ours accordingly, only to be told – through a grin – "You're late."
"It's New Year's," I remind him needlessly, even as I grin back. "I thought you might take the night off."
"And exactly what kind of lover would that make me?" he teases. "To neglect my sweetheart on the most important night of the year?" He returns to the stove, pours the chocolate into two mugs, and passes one out the window with a wink. It's a stretch, but my arms are long enough for this, and Marko always offers me the handle.
It started as a joke, this nightly routine of hot chocolate at our kitchen windows, inspired by Katniss's accounts of cozy after-supper drinks with Peeta, but it's become my favorite part of the day – and an especially cherished ritual, considering how early Marko needs to be in the bakery and how precious every moment of sleep is. He naps during the afternoon sometimes, but he still aims for bed as early as possible.
He leans one hip against the sill and dips his head under the raised pane with a crooked smile. He's so big that a certain amount of flexibility and creativity is necessary for these window conversations – and half the fun of them, sometimes, is watching him bend and shift to find a comfortable position.
"I only have a minute," he warns. "Mom's in a temper, no surprise. Luka ran her a bath, but she'll be out here any second to holler at me for letting all the heat out – or maybe all the cold in."
This, too, is part and parcel of our evening chocolate and chat. We usually meet while my mother and his are both downstairs in their respective shops, puttering with recipes or shopping lists or figures, but with today being New Year's, everything is a little off-kilter. "It's okay," I tell him, taking a greedy sip of hot chocolate – which is a thousand times better than the medicinal tea waiting for me in the living room, and more immediately soothing too. I remind myself to ask Mom if chocolate has any documented effect on menstrual discomforts.
"I'm just glad I get to see you," I confess, making my cheeks flush, and blame it on the steaming cup of chocolate in my hands. "You'd think: living next door and practically sharing a wall, we'd be sick of the sight of each other."
"Speaking for myself, that's never going to happen," he says, and though his mouth is smiling – a curve through the heart of his beard that makes me want to stretch out into the distance between our windowsills and trace it with my fingers – his eyes are gentle and very serious.
"Good," I hear myself say, and blush even harder. "Because I like hot chocolate and these after-supper chats – and I like you, Marko Mellark."
"I may hold you to that one day," he says. His smile has broadened into a grin, with an extra whisper of ruddiness above his beard, but his eyes are still very somber.
I hope you do, I plead silently, and envision being swept up in arms like oak trunks and covered with kisses from a bearded mouth. Of sharing a kitchen and a table and a bed with those bright eyes and strong hands. Of curling beside him beneath coverlets that smell of fresh bread and burying my face in that broad, warm chest.
Of all that and a bakery to put it in.
He turns at a sound from within and his face falls. "I should go," he says ruefully, gazing down at his untouched mug of chocolate. "Maybe this will sweeten Mom's temper," he muses.
"Why is she so upset tonight?" I ask.
He gives a short, bitter laugh. "You'd be upset too," he says, "if your husband's former sweetheart moved into the house next door and came over to celebrate New Year's with your family."
"My husband's not going to have any other sweethearts," I tell him sternly, furious at the mere thought of it.
"No, he won't," Marko assures me, very quietly. "He'll wait a hundred years for your heart to catch up with his, if that's what it takes."
I stare back at this strong, handsome man who could be married tomorrow and filling the bakery with curly blond heads before I'm even of an age to walk out with a boy. Would you? I ask him silently. Would you wait for me?
"A hundred years, Prim," he says again, even softer. "If that's what it takes."
"I like the sound of that," I whisper.
I take one last long sip from my mug and pass it back again, to his surprise. When we've been interrupted in the past, I finish the chocolate on my own and return the clean mug when Marko or his father comes in the morning with fresh bread and sweets, but since he's in all likelihood giving his own cup of chocolate to his mother, this is the only fair thing to do.
He looks down at the half-portion remaining and smiles. "Thank you, Primrose," he says. "And Happy New Year."
"Happy New Year, Marko," I reply.
I duck back into the kitchen and close the window, but I don't walk away at once, and neither does he, even though his mother must be on her way to chide him for the open window – or at least, the lingering cold. He sets aside both cups of chocolate and strokes the red ribbon tied around his arm, his eyes thoughtful and seeking mine through the pane.
I clear my throat and bring my braid over my shoulder where he can see it clearly, then trace his red ribbon with my fingertips. I'm not sure what we're doing or what it means. It feels unsettlingly, breathlessly grown-up – yet at the same time, very right. "Good night," I whisper to the glass, and slowly turn away.
My mug and hot brick are waiting for me in the living room, and I swallow the tepid, earthy brew as quickly as I can, while the creamy residue of hot chocolate still lingers in my mouth. I take the mug back to the kitchen to wash up and glance out the window one last time in spite of myself, but Marko's not there anymore. The electric lights are off, save for the lamp above the stove, and Mrs. Mellark is moving about the darkened kitchen like an angry shadow.
I set my mug on the drainboard and notice for the first time what isn't there: Mom's stovepot. It's sitting on the worktop with water in its base but no coffee in the pitcher-top – and stone-cold. Mom started to make coffee and then didn't – and she didn't simply change her mind, or she would have emptied the stovepot again and put it away.
I make my way quietly to her bedroom, wondering if she might be feeling sick, and find the door open just a crack. Something tells me not to walk in as I normally would or even to knock, and I ease the door open a little further to peer inside.
The bedside lamps are lit and Mom's dressed for sleep, but she's not in bed. She's wearing one of the pretty nightgowns that was in her dresser when we moved in: rose-patterned cotton, ivory lace, and fine pink ribbons, and her hair is brushed out and loose about her shoulders, not yet braided for sleep.
She stands at the window with her back to me and one slender hand holding the curtain open, and for a moment I wonder if she was watching Marko and me. She knows about our nightly chocolate and chat and has good-naturedly picked on me for it every now and again, but surely she would have come out earlier and said something if that were the case tonight.
And then I catch a glimpse of the window opposite her.
It's Mr. and Mrs. Mellark's bedroom, as near to Mom's bedroom as our respective kitchens are to each other. I look through that window rarely enough, but it's always either dark or empty or, briefly, lit from within, with the curtains drawn.
Tonight it is none of those things.
The curtains are open, and by the weak light of his own lamps I glimpse Mr. Mellark getting ready for bed. I've seen my share of shirtless men among Mom's patients, but none of them has looked anything like this. Mr. Mellark is tall and fair and healthy, unlike the poor miners who come to my mother for medical treatment. His torso is broad and strong and thick with muscle, and his chest is shadowed with hair from collarbones to sternum.
He's at once the most beautiful thing I've ever seen and a heart-fluttering hint of what Marko might look like beneath his clothes, should I ever have opportunity to see that.
Mom gives a quiet whimper and presses her free hand to the glass, and I move away as quickly as if she'd seen me. I don't know why she's watching Mr. Mellark undress or why she reacted to the sight of him like that, but it makes my breath short and my cheeks hot with something that isn't quite embarrassment.
When I've collected myself, I peer through the crack in the door again, certain I must have imagined everything I thought I heard and saw. Mom is still at her window but now Mr. Mellark is at his too, just three feet away from her, and the expression in his eyes, even by the poor light of his lamps, is so full of longing that I bring a fist to my mouth to keep from letting any sound escape.
He wasn't the only one who had trouble getting out of bed at four o'clock in the morning, Mom told me, as clear as day, and I hadn't thought twice about it.
She and Mr. Mellark hadn't just been sweethearts all those years ago: they'd been lovers. I know a little of what happens between a man and a woman – or between Lady and the Goat Man's bucks, much as people try to keep it from me – but I've never thought of my mother as part of such an act, let alone with a man other than my father.
This is why her rejection cut so deep. She wasn't simply Mr. Mellark's sweetheart, with red ribbons and shy stolen kisses, hand-holds and little tender words exchanged in quiet moments: she shared his bed.When she was a teenager – maybe as young as Katniss is now – she took off her clothes and lay down with him, letting him kiss and touch her everywhere and even –
I cover the fist at my mouth with my other hand and clamp down hard to cover my shriek. She let him be inside her, the way husbands and wives are. The way she and Dad were, to conceive Katniss and me, and the way they must have been sometimes after; those mornings when I woke before dawn, needing a drink of water, and saw them lying naked and tangled over a crumpled bedsheet.
I tear my eyes from Mom and Mr. Mellark, stunned and horrified and even a little frightened, and my gaze catches on the bed. Mom's coffee canister lies open on the coverlet, which is strange enough, but the coffee pouch that lies forgotten beside it is hardly large enough to fill the container.
The stream of red ribbons spilling from the mouth of the canister, however, is more than sufficient.
I've never seen so many ribbons outside of a shop. There must be twenty of them: all perfect sweetheart ribbons, two feet long and glossy red, sprawling at the center of Mom's bed like the bloodstain from a belly wound. A drawerful of sweetheart ribbons. Twenty or more years of ribbons, tied carefully around a kissing bough and untied with equal care, then tucked away for an oblivious sweetheart.
I wonder why he gave them to her now.
"Twenty-two red ribbons," Mom whispers.
For a half-second I think she's going to lift open the window and speak to him or even climb across to his room, but she only drops the curtain closed and whirls back toward the bed. I duck away, even though I'm well-hidden by the door, and watch through the crack as she gathers up the ribbons in frantic, furious fistfuls and stuffs them back into the canister. She puts in the coffee pouch last of all, closes the lid with a snap, and shoves the canister under her bed.
Only my mother could be so angry to discover that her former sweetheart still loves her.
I've just reached my bedroom door when I hear her sob.
Most of my earliest – and latest – memories are of Mom crying, and I want more than anything to make it stop. To climb up on the bed beside her and wrap her in my arms, but I can't fix this. I don't know if anyone can.
For a moment I consider running down to the Mellarks' back door. Marko or Luka would answer my knock and get their father, and I could tell him what he's done – and make him fix it. Make him come up here and sit on my mother's bed, bare-chested, and hold her in his arms till she stopped crying. Lyssa, he would call her, as he stroked her hair and kissed the tears from her eyes. Maybe she would even kiss him back before it was over.
But I'm a woman tonight; a child no longer, and I know it would help no one to force Mom and Mr. Mellark to confront this right now. It would only cause more hurt and anger and make our living situation unbearable.
I wonder for the thousandth time how Peeta can bear it: sharing a house in the middle of nowhere with the girl he loves more than his own life, and not able to speak a word of it to her. If I thought it would help anyone, I'd write Katniss a letter right now and tell her exactly why he made the bargain and how he feels about her.
Mom gives another sob; a wet, shaky, broken sound. I run to my room, take the notebook from my nightstand, and begin writing feverishly.
Peeta loves you madly. That's why he made the bargain, and why he's taking care of us. He wants to marry you and kiss you breathless and fill you with half a dozen babies, but he can't tell you that for several reasons and it's got to be killing him. And I think you love him too, so maybe you should kiss him or something as soon as you read this, just to give him some kind of hope.
Also, Mom and Mr. Mellark were lovers when they were young. She used to spend the night with him all the time, I think, but when he asked her to marry him, she broke up with him and went to the Seam to marry Dad instead. I don't know why, but apparently she was in the woods at some point, and that's when she really fell in love with Dad. Oh, and Mr. Mellark just gave Mom twenty-two red ribbons that he must have been saving ever since they broke up. He hid them in a tin of the coffee he always gives her, the coffee he makes with almonds because Mom loves them. They looked at each other out their bedroom windows, and now she's upset and crying and I don't know how to fix it.
I got my menses tonight. Oh, and Marko gave me a sweetheart ribbon and kissed me on the cheek, and I gave him a red ribbon and a kiss in return. I know he's too old and too good for me, but I want him anyway. I think I'm in love with him. I want to marry him and –
Red-faced, I crumple the impossible letter and stuff the resulting ball in the drawer of my nightstand. I can't tell Katniss any of this. Peeta promised to tell her his feelings someday, and as for the rest, she doesn't need to know. Hearing about Mr. Mellark would only give her more reasons to be mad at Mom, who misses her more than she could ever imagine, and I know she thinks of me as a child needing care and protection. I don't resent her for it; she's the best older sister anyone could ask for, and she's kept us alive and safe ever since Dad died. But she's not ready for me to be a young woman, and to be honest, I'm not sure I am either.
I take a clean sheet of paper and start over, this time with the kind of letter she expects.
Happy New Year, Katniss!
The snow ice cream was delicious, and we had a wonderful time with the Mellarks at supper…