When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My
fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only
the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had
bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she
did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in
the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up
on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks
pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still
worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a
raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named.
My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.
Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest
cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the
color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting
that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower.
He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was
years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown
him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny
kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The
last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim
begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned
out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born
mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I
clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped
hissing at me.
Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever
come to love.
I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting
boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet. I pull on
trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and
grab my forage bag. On the table, under a wooden bowl to
protect it from hungry rats and cats alike, sits a perfect little
goat cheese wrapped in basil leaves. Prim’s gift to me on
reaping day. I put the cheese carefully in my pocket as I slip
Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually
crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift
at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders,
swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying
to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of
their sunken faces. But today the black cinder streets are
empty. Shutters on the squat gray houses are closed. The
reaping isn’t until two. May as well sleep in. If you can.
Our house is almost at the edge of the Seam. I only
have to pass a few gates to reach the scruffy field called the
Meadow. Separating the Meadow from the woods, in fact
enclosing all of District 12, is a high chain-link fence topped
with barbed-wire loops. In theory, it’s supposed to be electrified
twenty-four hours a day as a deterrent to the predators
that live in the woods — packs of wild dogs, lone
cougars, bears — that used to threaten our streets. But since
we’re lucky to get two or three hours of electricity in the
evenings, it’s usually safe to touch. Even so, I always take a
moment to listen carefully for the hum that means the fence
is live. Right now, it’s silent as a stone. Concealed by a
clump of bushes, I flatten out on my belly and slide under a
two-foot stretch that’s been loose for years. There are several
other weak spots in the fence, but this one is so close to
home I almost always enter the woods here.
As soon as I’m in the trees, I retrieve a bow and sheath
of arrows from a hollow log. Electrified or not, the fence
has been successful at keeping the flesh-eaters out of District
12. Inside the woods they roam freely, and there are added
concerns like venomous snakes, rabid animals, and no real
paths to follow. But there’s also food if you know how to
find it. My father knew and he taught me some before he
was blown to bits in a mine explosion. There was nothing
even to bury. I was eleven then. Five years later, I still wake
up screaming for him to run.
Even though trespassing in the woods is illegal and
poaching carries the severest of penalties, more people would
risk it if they had weapons. But most are not bold enough
to venture out with just a knife. My bow is a rarity, crafted
by my father along with a few others that I keep well hidden
in the woods, carefully wrapped in waterproof covers.
My father could have made good money selling them, but if
the officials found out he would have been publicly executed
for inciting a rebellion. Most of the Peacekeepers turn a
blind eye to the few of us who hunt because they’re as hungry
for fresh meat as anybody is. In fact, they’re among our
best customers. But the idea that someone might be arming
the Seam would never have been allowed.
In the fall, a few brave souls sneak into the woods to
harvest apples. But always in sight of the Meadow. Always
close enough to run back to the safety of District 12 if trouble
arises. “District Twelve. Where you can starve to death
in safety,” I mutter. Then I glance quickly over my shoulder.
Even here, even in the middle of nowhere, you worry
someone might overhear you.
When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the
things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people
who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city called
the Capitol. Eventually I understood this would only lead us
to more trouble. So I learned to hold my tongue and to turn
my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could
ever read my thoughts. Do my work quietly in school. Make
only polite small talk in the public market. Discuss little
more than trades in the Hob, which is the black market
where I make most of my money. Even at home, where I am
less pleasant, I avoid discussing tricky topics. Like the reaping,
or food shortages, or the Hunger Games. Prim might
begin to repeat my words and then where would we be?
In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be
myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my
pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock
ledge overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects
it from unwanted eyes. The sight of him waiting there brings
on a smile. Gale says I never smile except in the woods.
“Hey, Catnip,” says Gale. My real name is Katniss, but
when I first told him, I had barely whispered it. So he
thought I’d said Catnip. Then when this crazy lynx started
following me around the woods looking for handouts,
it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill
the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it
because he wasn’t bad company. But I got a decent price for
“Look what I shot,” Gale holds up a loaf of bread with
an arrow stuck in it, and I laugh. It’s real bakery bread, not
the flat, dense loaves we make from our grain rations. I take
it in my hands, pull out the arrow, and hold the puncture
in the crust to my nose, inhaling the fragrance that makes
my mouth flood with saliva. Fine bread like this is for special
“Mm, still warm,” I say. He must have been at the
bakery at the crack of dawn to trade for it. “What did it
“Just a squirrel. Think the old man was feeling sentimental
this morning,” says Gale. “Even wished me luck.”
“Well, we all feel a little closer today, don’t we?” I say,
not even bothering to roll my eyes. “Prim left us a cheese.” I
pull it out.
His expression brightens at the treat. “Thank you, Prim.
We’ll have a real feast.” Suddenly he falls into a Capitol
accent as he mimics Effie Trinket, the maniacally upbeat
woman who arrives once a year to read out the names at the
reaping. “I almost forgot! Happy Hunger Games!” He plucks
a few blackberries from the bushes around us. “And may the
odds —” He tosses a berry in a high arc toward me.
I catch it in my mouth and break the delicate skin with
my teeth. The sweet tartness explodes across my tongue.
“— be ever in your favor!” I finish with equal verve. We
have to joke about it because the alternative is to be scared
out of your wits. Besides, the Capitol accent is so affected,
almost anything sounds funny in it.
I watch as Gale pulls out his knife and slices the bread.
He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin, we
even have the same gray eyes. But we’re not related, at least
not closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble
one another this way.
That’s why my mother and Prim, with their light hair
and blue eyes, always look out of place. They are. My
mother’s parents were part of the small merchant class that
caters to officials, Peacekeepers, and the occasional Seam
customer. They ran an apothecary shop in the nicer part of
District 12. Since almost no one can afford doctors, apothecaries
are our healers. My father got to know my mother
because on his hunts he would sometimes collect medicinal
herbs and sell them to her shop to be brewed into remedies.
She must have really loved him to leave her home for
the Seam. I try to remember that when all I can see is the
woman who sat by, blank and unreachable, while her children
turned to skin and bones. I try to forgive her for my
father’s sake. But to be honest, I’m not the forgiving type.
Gale spreads the bread slices with the soft goat cheese,
carefully placing a basil leaf on each while I strip the bushes
of their berries. We settle back in a nook in the rocks. From
this place, we are invisible but have a clear view of the valley,
which is teeming with summer life, greens to gather,
roots to dig, fish iridescent in the sunlight. The day is glorious,
with a blue sky and soft breeze. The food’s wonderful,
with the cheese seeping into the warm bread and the berries
bursting in our mouths. Everything would be perfect if this
really was a holiday, if all the day off meant was roaming
the mountains with Gale, hunting for tonight’s supper. But
instead we have to be standing in the square at two o’clock
waiting for the names to be called out.
“We could do it, you know,” Gale says quietly.
“What?” I ask.
“Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and
I, we could make it,” says Gale.
I don’t know how to respond. The idea is so
“If we didn’t have so many kids,” he adds quickly.
They’re not our kids, of course. But they might as well
be. Gale’s two little brothers and a sister. Prim. And you
may as well throw in our mothers, too, because how would
they live without us? Who would fill those mouths that are
always asking for more? With both of us hunting daily,
there are still nights when game has to be swapped for lard
or shoelaces or wool, still nights when we go to bed with
our stomachs growling.
“I never want to have kids,” I say.
“I might. If I didn’t live here,” says Gale.
“But you do,” I say, irritated.
“Forget it,” he snaps back.
The conversation feels all wrong. Leave? How could I
leave Prim, who is the only person in the world I’m certain
I love? And Gale is devoted to his family. We can’t leave, so
why bother talking about it? And even if we did . . . even if
we did . . . where did this stuff about having kids come
from? There’s never been anything romantic between Gale
and me. When we met, I was a skinny twelve-year-old, and
although he was only two years older, he already looked
like a man. It took a long time for us to even become
friends, to stop haggling over every trade and begin helping
each other out.
Besides, if he wants kids, Gale won’t have any trouble
finding a wife. He’s good-looking, he’s strong enough to
handle the work in the mines, and he can hunt. You can
tell by the way the girls whisper about him when he walks
by in school that they want him. It makes me jealous but
not for the reason people would think. Good hunting partners
are hard to find.
“What do you want to do?” I ask. We can hunt, fish, or
“Let’s fish at the lake. We can leave our poles and gather
in the woods. Get something nice for tonight,” he says.
Tonight. After the reaping, everyone is supposed to celebrate.
And a lot of people do, out of relief that their children
have been spared for another year. But at least two
families will pull their shutters, lock their doors, and try to
figure out how they will survive the painful weeks to come.
We make out well. The predators ignore us on a day
when easier, tastier prey abounds. By late morning, we have
a dozen fish, a bag of greens and, best of all, a gallon of
strawberries. I found the patch a few years ago, but Gale
had the idea to string mesh nets around it to keep out
On the way home, we swing by the Hob, the black market
that operates in an abandoned warehouse that once held
coal. When they came up with a more efficient system that
transported the coal directly from the mines to the trains,
the Hob gradually took over the space. Most businesses are
closed by this time on reaping day, but the black market’s
still fairly busy. We easily trade six of the fish for good
bread, the other two for salt. Greasy Sae, the bony old
woman who sells bowls of hot soup from a large kettle,
takes half the greens off our hands in exchange for a couple
of chunks of paraffin. We might do a tad better elsewhere,
but we make an effort to keep on good terms with Greasy
Sae. She’s the only one who can consistently be counted on
to buy wild dog. We don’t hunt them on purpose, but if
you’re attacked and you take out a dog or two, well, meat is
meat. “Once it’s in the soup, I’ll call it beef,” Greasy Sae
says with a wink. No one in the Seam would turn up their
nose at a good leg of wild dog, but the Peacekeepers who
come to the Hob can afford to be a little choosier.
When we finish our business at the market, we go to
the back door of the mayor’s house to sell half the strawberries,
knowing he has a particular fondness for them and can
afford our price. The mayor’s daughter, Madge, opens the
door. She’s in my year at school. Being the mayor’s daughter,
you’d expect her to be a snob, but she’s all right. She
just keeps to herself. Like me. Since neither of us really has
a group of friends, we seem to end up together a lot at
school. Eating lunch, sitting next to each other at assemblies,
partnering for sports activities. We rarely talk, which
suits us both just fine.
Today her drab school outfit has been replaced by an
expensive white dress, and her blonde hair is done up with a
pink ribbon. Reaping clothes.
“Pretty dress,” says Gale.
Madge shoots him a look, trying to see if it’s a genuine
compliment or if he’s just being ironic. It is a pretty dress,
but she would never be wearing it ordinarily. She presses her
lips together and then smiles. “Well, if I end up going to
the Capitol, I want to look nice, don’t I?”
Now it’s Gale’s turn to be confused. Does she mean it?
Or is she messing with him? I’m guessing the second.
“You won’t be going to the Capitol,” says Gale coolly.
His eyes land on a small, circular pin that adorns her dress.
Real gold. Beautifully crafted. It could keep a family in
bread for months. “What can you have? Five entries? I had
six when I was just twelve years old.”
“That’s not her fault,” I say.
“No, it’s no one’s fault. Just the way it is,” says Gale.
Madge’s face has become closed off. She puts the money
for the berries in my hand. “Good luck, Katniss.”
“You, too,” I say, and the door closes.
We walk toward the Seam in silence. I don’t like that
Gale took a dig at Madge, but he’s right, of course. The
reaping system is unfair, with the poor getting the worst of
it. You become eligible for the reaping the day you turn
twelve. That year, your name is entered once. At thirteen,
twice. And so on and so on until you reach the age of eighteen,
the final year of eligibility, when your name goes into
the pool seven times. That’s true for every citizen in all
twelve districts in the entire country of Panem.
But here’s the catch. Say you are poor and starving as
we were. You can opt to add your name more times in
exchange for tesserae. Each tessera is worth a meager year’s
supply of grain and oil for one person. You may do this for
each of your family members as well. So, at the age of
twelve, I had my name entered four times. Once, because I
had to, and three times for tesserae for grain and oil for
myself, Prim, and my mother. In fact, every year I have
needed to do this. And the entries are cumulative. So now,
at the age of sixteen, my name will be in the reaping twenty
times. Gale, who is eighteen and has been either helping or
single-handedly feeding a family of five for seven years, will
have his name in forty-two times.
You can see why someone like Madge, who has never
been at risk of needing a tessera, can set him off. The chance
of her name being drawn is very slim compared to those of
us who live in the Seam. Not impossible, but slim. And
even though the rules were set up by the Capitol, not the
districts, certainly not Madge’s family, it’s hard not to resent
those who don’t have to sign up for tesserae.
Gale knows his anger at Madge is misdirected. On other
days, deep in the woods, I’ve listened to him rant about how
the tesserae are just another tool to cause misery in our district.
A way to plant hatred between the starving workers
of the Seam and those who can generally count on supper
and thereby ensure we will never trust one another. “It’s
to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided among ourselves,”
he might say if there were no ears to hear but mine.
If it wasn’t reaping day. If a girl with a gold pin and no
tesserae had not made what I’m sure she thought was a
As we walk, I glance over at Gale’s face, still smoldering
underneath his stony expression. His rages seem pointless to
me, although I never say so. It’s not that I don’t agree with
him. I do. But what good is yelling about the Capitol in the
middle of the woods? It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t
make things fair. It doesn’t fill our stomachs. In fact, it
scares off the nearby game. I let him yell though. Better he
does it in the woods than in the district.
Gale and I divide our spoils, leaving two fish, a couple
of loaves of good bread, greens, a quart of strawberries, salt,
paraffin, and a bit of money for each.
“See you in the square,” I say.
“Wear something pretty,” he says flatly.
At home, I find my mother and sister are ready to go.
My mother wears a fine dress from her apothecary days.
Prim is in my first reaping outfit, a skirt and ruffled blouse.
It’s a bit big on her, but my mother has made it stay with
pins. Even so, she’s having trouble keeping the blouse tucked
in at the back.
A tub of warm water waits for me. I scrub off the dirt
and sweat from the woods and even wash my hair. To my
surprise, my mother has laid out one of her own lovely
dresses for me. A soft blue thing with matching shoes.
“Are you sure?” I ask. I’m trying to get past rejecting
offers of help from her. For a while, I was so angry, I
wouldn’t allow her to do anything for me. And this is something
special. Her clothes from her past are very precious
“Of course. Let’s put your hair up, too,” she says. I let
her towel-dry it and braid it up on my head. I can hardly
recognize myself in the cracked mirror that leans against
“You look beautiful,” says Prim in a hushed voice.
“And nothing like myself,” I say. I hug her, because I
know these next few hours will be terrible for her. Her first
reaping. She’s about as safe as you can get, since she’s only
entered once. I wouldn’t let her take out any tesserae. But
she’s worried about me. That the unthinkable might
I protect Prim in every way I can, but I’m powerless
against the reaping. The anguish I always feel when she’s in
pain wells up in my chest and threatens to register on my
face. I notice her blouse has pulled out of her skirt in the
back again and force myself to stay calm. “Tuck your tail
in, little duck,” I say, smoothing the blouse back in place.
Prim giggles and gives me a small “Quack.”
“Quack yourself,” I say with a light laugh. The kind
only Prim can draw out of me. “Come on, let’s eat,” I say
and plant a quick kiss on the top of her head.
The fish and greens are already cooking in a stew, but
that will be for supper. We decide to save the strawberries
and bakery bread for this evening’s meal, to make it special
we say. Instead we drink milk from Prim’s goat, Lady, and
eat the rough bread made from the tessera grain, although
no one has much appetite anyway.
At one o’clock, we head for the square. Attendance is
mandatory unless you are on death’s door. This evening,
officials will come around and check to see if this is the
case. If not, you’ll be imprisoned.
It’s too bad, really, that they hold the reaping in the
square — one of the few places in District 12 that can be
pleasant. The square’s surrounded by shops, and on public
market days, especially if there’s good weather, it has a holiday
feel to it. But today, despite the bright banners hanging
on the buildings, there’s an air of grimness. The camera
crews, perched like buzzards on rooftops, only add to the
People file in silently and sign in. The reaping is a good
opportunity for the Capitol to keep tabs on the population
as well. Twelve- through eighteen-year-olds are herded into
roped areas marked off by ages, the oldest in the front, the
young ones, like Prim, toward the back. Family members
line up around the perimeter, holding tightly to one another’s
hands. But there are others, too, who have no one they love
at stake, or who no longer care, who slip among the crowd,
taking bets on the two kids whose names will be drawn.
Odds are given on their ages, whether they’re Seam or merchant,
if they will break down and weep. Most refuse dealing
with the racketeers but carefully, carefully. These same
people tend to be informers, and who hasn’t broken the law?
I could be shot on a daily basis for hunting, but the appetites
of those in charge protect me. Not everyone can claim
Anyway, Gale and I agree that if we have to choose
between dying of hunger and a bullet in the head, the bullet
would be much quicker.
The space gets tighter, more claustrophobic as people
arrive. The square’s quite large, but not enough to hold
District 12’s population of about eight thousand. Latecomers
are directed to the adjacent streets, where they can watch
the event on screens as it’s televised live by the state.
I find myself standing in a clump of sixteens from the
Seam. We all exchange terse nods then focus our attention
on the temporary stage that is set up before the Justice
Building. It holds three chairs, a podium, and two large
glass balls, one for the boys and one for the girls. I stare at
the paper slips in the girls’ ball. Twenty of them have
Katniss Everdeen written on them in careful handwriting.
Two of the three chairs fill with Madge’s father, Mayor
Undersee, who’s a tall, balding man, and Effie Trinket,
District 12’s escort, fresh from the Capitol with her scary
white grin, pinkish hair, and spring green suit. They
murmur to each other and then look with concern at the
Just as the town clock strikes two, the mayor steps up to
the podium and begins to read. It’s the same story every
year. He tells of the history of Panem, the country that rose
up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North
America. He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the
fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of
the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained.
The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen
districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens.
Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts
against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth
obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to
guarantee peace and, as our yearly reminder that the Dark
Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games.
The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment
for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide
one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The
twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor
arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to
a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the
competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing
Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill
one another while we watch — this is the Capitol’s way of
reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little
chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion.
Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. “Look
how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s
nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy
every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen.”
To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol
requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting
event pitting every district against the others. The last
tribute alive receives a life of ease back home, and their district
will be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food.
All year, the Capitol will show the winning district gifts of
grain and oil and even delicacies like sugar while the rest
of us battle starvation.
“It is both a time for repentance and a time for thanks,”
intones the mayor.
Then he reads the list of past District 12 victors. In
seventy-four years, we have had exactly two. Only one is
still alive. Haymitch Abernathy, a paunchy, middle-aged
man, who at this moment appears hollering something
unintelligible, staggers onto the stage, and falls into the
third chair. He’s drunk. Very. The crowd responds with its
token applause, but he’s confused and tries to give Effie
Trinket a big hug, which she barely manages to fend off.
The mayor looks distressed. Since all of this is being
televised, right now District 12 is the laughingstock of
Panem, and he knows it. He quickly tries to pull the attention
back to the reaping by introducing Effie Trinket.
Bright and bubbly as ever, Effie Trinket trots to the
podium and gives her signature, “Happy Hunger Games!
And may the odds be ever in your favor!” Her pink hair
must be a wig because her curls have shifted slightly offcenter
since her encounter with Haymitch. She goes on a bit
about what an honor it is to be here, although everyone
knows she’s just aching to get bumped up to a better district
where they have proper victors, not drunks who molest
you in front of the entire nation.
Through the crowd, I spot Gale looking back at me
with a ghost of a smile. As reapings go, this one at least has
a slight entertainment factor. But suddenly I am thinking of
Gale and his forty-two names in that big glass ball and how
the odds are not in his favor. Not compared to a lot of the
boys. And maybe he’s thinking the same thing about me
because his face darkens and he turns away. “But there are
still thousands of slips,” I wish I could whisper to him.
It’s time for the drawing. Effie Trinket says as she
always does, “Ladies first!” and crosses to the glass ball with
the girls’ names. She reaches in, digs her hand deep into the
ball, and pulls out a slip of paper. The crowd draws in a
collective breath and then you can hear a pin drop, and I’m
feeling nauseous and so desperately hoping that it’s not me,
that it’s not me, that it’s not me.
Effie Trinket crosses back to the podium, smoothes the
slip of paper, and reads out the name in a clear voice. And
it’s not me.
It’s Primrose Everdeen.
Chapter 1, from THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins © 2008 Suzanne Collins. Used by permission of Scholastic Inc. All rights reserved.