The entire course of Bethena Berkizer’s life had been determined by three simple words. From her startling entrance into the wretched world to her inevitable and welcome passing, along with however many days, months and years may fit between those two certain points of her existence. Three words that reached out and touched every waking moment of her life, forever tainting them with their implications. Three words that would be forever chained to Bethena, defining her in the eyes of the world with immediate and unforgiving clarity. Three words that would impose their haunting presence in Bethena Berkizer’s mind, body and soul for every single second of her miserable, pathetic life.
“Complications during childbirth.”
Those were the words printed on nearly every page contained in the vast tome of Bethena’s medical records. Her first breath of air had been exhaled in a scream of pain. Her first sensation was an agony that would never abandon her. She’d spent the first six months of her life in a plastic tank, struggling against her restraints as robotic claws chewed into her tiny legs and attempted to repair her splintered bones. It is believed that children under the age of two will forget all of their infantile experiences as they age. Perhaps Bethena was an exceptional child after all, because she could remember all of it.
In time, the grafts and implants did the trick, and little Bethena Berkizer was allowed out of her cage to begin exploring the cruel, painful world around her. As her understanding of reality grew, she slowly became aware of just how alone she was. She was as alone as any infant could be, for those three terrible words were written on another piece of paper as well - one that made no mention of Bethena, but whose meaning would have a tremendous impact on the small girl’s life. Yes, the phrase ‘complications during childbirth’ was written on Katarina Berkizer’s death certificate, bearing the exact same date as Bethena’s birth.
In the coming years, Bethena would wonder how she could have felt such loss at her early age. The maternal concept had never been introduced to her, so it seems illogical that she would achieve the realization that she was a motherless child. And yet, Bethena was certain that she had felt something… some ghostly absence, some sense of loss. She was still too young to know the three terrible words responsible for her situation, but she certainly understood how much she had lost. Like the pain coiling endlessly through her lower limbs, this burden of unfathomable grief would never, ever leave.
Until her release from the tank, Bethena had never met her father. Later, he would tell her about the few occasions when he had peered at her through the curved plastic walls of the cage, so perhaps one of those ghostly, distorted blurs she recalled had been him after all. Regardless, when she finally found herself draped uncomfortably in her father’s statuesque arms, she perceived him as a complete stranger. Her mind was too undeveloped to comprehend the genealogical structure connecting them, and whatever primitive mechanism that would typically bridge parent with child had clearly been wasted while she lay in that sanitized torture chamber. For all Bethena knew, she might have bonded with the plastic tubes that pumped fluid and nutrients into her stomach instead of her only living parent, or, more likely, her being contained in such a desolate and depleted environment led her to not bond with anything at all.
Bethena’s childhood was one of enclosure and solitude. For the first few years she lived in the enormous hospital estate to which she’d been born, her interactions limited to an ever-changing host of nurses, punctuated by doctor’s examinations or brief, scripted visits from her father (on the very rare occasions when he wasn’t on one of his lengthy business trips around the nation). The nursing staff was comprised of legions of men and women who marched throughout the vast hospital complex like some sort of military police, carrying out their duties with mechanical efficiency. Most of the nurses were coarse in temperament and viewed Bethena with suspicion and intolerance, but there were a few who treated her more kindly.
The doctors, however, were typically cold, detached individuals who viewed Bethena as an unfortunate failure on the part of their otherwise flawless medical system. In time, Bethena would adopt their perspective wholeheartedly, building it into an all-consuming hatred and bitterness for the fate she had been dealt. Time and time again, she would angrily question how such a thing could happen. This was the Capitol of Panem, the most advanced city in all human history. Every day she saw evidence of this city’s astounding prosperity. Every day, citizens would enter the hospital with the worst injuries and ailments imaginable, and in a matter of hours or even minutes they would be fully cured, ready to return to their daily lives. One time she saw an intoxicated partygoer arrive after leaping off a balcony, their legs brutally mangled. Within weeks the patient was on their feet again, ready for another night of risky thrills. She looked down at her own delicate, girlish legs--still elevated in traction from her most recent operation, in which the doctors inserted another set of bone -screws to try and force her femurs to stop twisting inward. The nerves and muscles that should control her lower legs had never developed properly after her ‘mis-birth,’ and even if they did work the cartilage in her knees was so worn down from her improper stance that she would need specialized cushions implanted just to keep the bones from grinding away at each other. Bethena supposed she should be thankful, though, as she still had enough nerve function to feel sensation throughout her legs--every excruciating square inch of them. The doctors had spent several years pumping her full of painkillers, but at most they could only decrease her pain by a third. It almost made Bethena laugh, recalling how they had attempted to coldly and scientifically explain the phenomenon of ‘phantom-pain’ to an agonized six year old.
In time she grew to understand such things very well, of course. With so many days spent trapped in a hospital bed, Bethena was always desperate for any kind of mental diversion to ease her neurological suffering. She devoured any educational resource she could get her little hands on, researching anything and everything that interested her. The sciences spoke to her from the start, especially those fields involving mechanics and electricity. On the few occasions she and her father spoke, the only subject that could spark a genuine connection was the vast field of mechanical engineering to which he was so devoted. For so long it had been difficult for her to regard him as anything but a stranger, but once they began to sit together and discuss Panem’s vast system of magnetic railways… well, at least he was a stranger who knew something.
As intriguing as the scientific fields were, Bethena’s true passion was undiscovered for much of her childhood. Years later, she would often think how strange it was, that her greatest purpose in life might have slipped by unnoticed, if not for the kind actions of a complete stranger at a particularly terrible moment in her life. She had been suffering tremendously that day, and in her painful fury she lashed out at anything within her reach. She clawed at the staff, she smashed the equipment. Eventually she tried to slash away at her own legs, thinking her fingernails might be enough to perform the amputation she so desperately wanted. The orderlies were forced to restrain her, and she lay in helpless despair as her mind boiled in pain. Nurses scrambled to find a sedative that would not interfere with the myriad of other medications in her system, but one orderly rose above the chaos and provided Bethena with the most brilliant treatment imaginable.
The woman was an avox; nameless, speechless, worthless. Her tongue had been severed and her hand branded for some ‘crime’ - probably something ridiculously trivial like stealing food or making a joke about a politician. Perhaps she had spoken out against the Capitol’s governmental system, and the authorities wished to silence her. If that had been the case, then the Capitol had failed completely. If their intent was to silence the woman they should have cut off her hands as well, for she was a true and excellent musician. Whatever her past, whatever her motivation, the avox had decided to help a suffering child in the best way she could. She fetched her antique accordion, sat down on the child’s bed, and began to play an intricate melody. Bethena’s eyes grew wide as she heard music for the very first time, and amazingly her pain began to fade within the first few stanzas. It was miraculous - the neurological agony that had plagued her for years was reduced to a faint ache as the music washed soothingly over her. It would be impossible for anyone else to comprehend how incredible the experience was for the girl. It was more than the relief of pain, more than the birth of a new passion, for it was in that moment that Bethena found her soul, her faith, her purpose in existence. In that instant Bethena found her god; the god of music.
Nothing in her entire reality would ever be the same again.
The textured brick clacked against Bethena’s shoes as she walked slowly up the pathway. The sound of the brick remained exactly the same as when she first walked along them eight years ago, the first time she had come home to Berkizer manor. She’d finally been discharged from the cold, disapproving facilities of the hospital complex, and was then allowed to travel home with her father to the cold, disapproving expanse of her family estate. Nothing had really changed in the eight years since she had moved to the manor - her legs were still next to worthless, their only ability made possible by a pair of articulated braces that forced her into an excruciating yet functional stance. She’d worn the braces for years, yet she still was not used to the constant grinding pain and metallic clanking they made with every step she took.
Bethena enjoyed her walks home along the brick path, in spite of the intense amount of labor they required. The intricate patterns carved into each brick were pleasing to look at as she walked, and the grooves kept her shoes from slipping when they were wet. The path itself was flanked on both sides by beautifully sculpted hedgerows made from many different shrubs and vines, and Bethena enjoyed watching the many varieties of insects dwelling amid the leaves and blooms of all the plants. The tranquility of the path always helped her find a moment of peace in between the many frustrations of her day at school and the impending frustrations awaiting her at the towering mansion that was her home.
Eventually, she stepped into the shadow of her imposing house. Given her condition, Bethena had never used the marble steps leading up to the ancient mansion’s front doors. Instead she wound her way into a subtle servant’s entrance beside the steps, and took a mechanical lift up to the domestic floor. The house’s wait staffers were, for the most part, nice and helpful people, but Bethena usually tried to avoid them whenever she came home from school. She was familiar with their schedules and was an expert timing her arrival in order to miss them, so it did not seem odd to her that none of the staff were present as she wound her way up the staircase on the lift. She reached the top of the stars and stepped off onto the smooth wooden floor of mahogany, readjusting the locks on her metal knee joints. The domestic chamber was a large, comfortable space with vaulted ceilings and beautiful decorations. The atmosphere was peaceful and silent, with warm afternoon sunlight floating in through the tall windows. The walls of the room were lined with a multitude of paintings and sculptures and several wooden cases of antique books, while the center was occupied by a circle of cushioned chairs and couches equipped with a variety of electronic entertainment systems. Normally, Bethena would retreat directly to the welcoming confines of her room, but after a particularly long day of clanking around she felt like sitting in silence on the couches for a while.
After taking off her sport coat and throwing on a chair, Bethena went to the bookshelf and searched for an interesting afternoon read. After running her finger across the spine of several ancient tomes, she settled on a book about the role of disease and pestilence in major wars. She opened the book before turning away from the shelves and walking toward one of the couches. She had already begun to read the preface to the book as she walked, so she did not notice that someone was already sitting on the couch in front of her.
“Why hello there.” A calm, strong voice said to her. Bethena staggered backward as she heard the words. She did not cry out, but her eyes went wide with surprise as she stared at the strange person sitting on her couch. The woman continued to look at Bethena with a steady, confident gaze and a subtle smirk. “You must be Bethena.”
Bethena’s widened eyes narrowing into a glare. She quickly glanced at the woman who had invaded her personal space. She had a very striking face with short hair, was perhaps twenty-five years old, of medium height and a very athletic build. Her clothing was very militaristic, and she wore belt and harness holding several tools and weapons including a knife and a very large handgun.
“Aren’t you going to offer me some kind of refreshment, first? Fetch some tea and crumpets for your master?” The woman asked. She was leaning comfortably against the cushions of the couch, her muscular arms draped across the top to either side of her. “The class system has been turned upside down, young lady. You should know that by now. You should be thankful we’ve let you and your father keep living in this house as long as we have.”
Bethena paused and continued to stare at the woman, her face set in the venomous scowl she always wore when speaking to people. Slowly, the girl walked toward the woman, her braces clanking and scraping with every drawn-out step. The girl set her book forcefully down on the side table as she stepped toward the other end of the couch. She bent down and unlocked her knee joints, then carefully slid down into a seated position. Her now unsupported knees made loud and gruesome cracking noises as she sat down; her joints protested in pain, but Bethena clenched her jaw to keep from showing any weakness in the woman’s presence.
“My superiors told me you’re a cripple, but they didn't tell me you’re a mute as well.” The woman said, still watching the girl intently with her vivid green eyes. Combined with her green camouflage clothing and sharp viridian stare, the woman had a distinctly reptilian appearance. Bethena watched her out of the corner of her eye while feigning disinterest, picking up her book and turning to a section on the spread of parasites during prolonged trench warfare.
“Aren’t you curious as to who I am? Why I’m here?” The woman asked. Bethena simply continued to read about the ancient horrors of lice and fleas burrowing into soldier’s clothes and drinking their lifeblood. She was just about to turn to another page when the book leaped from her fingers, snatched away by the woman’s lightning quick hand.
“On the spread of disease and pestilence during times of war.” The woman read the title aloud. “Unusual reading material, I must say. Especially for someone who has never been anywhere close to a real war.” She softly tossed the book onto the table.
“Alright, listen up. I’m a patient person, but I’ve already been waiting around for you a while and it’s time for us to go. Do you have any questions?”
Bethena glared for a while, but realized this person was too determined to be driven away by silence. “Who are you? Why are you here?” She asked, spitting the woman’s own words back at her.
The woman’s smirk grew less subtle. “My name is Rezanne Carpenter, and I’m here to escort you to the Final Hunger Games.”
Bethena’s composure faltered for an instant, and a puzzled look crossed her face. She of course knew what the games were, although she’d always been too disinterested to watch or care about them. She also knew the games had been abolished after the revolution. The final hunger games had already been held several years ago, so what on earth could she be talking about?
“This is a reaping, Miss Berkizer.” Rezanne said, clearly reading Bethena’s confusion. “ You’ve been selected at random from all the children in the capitol, and now I’ve come to collect you. You will be participating in one last tournament as an act of retribution for the president’s assassination. The entire nation will be informed this evening, long after you’ve been taken away for processing. Now, will you go peacefully or do I have to sedate you?”
A wash of fear and disbelief poured over Bethena’s mind. Could Rezanne really be serious? How could the new government hope to justify reinstating the games? And how could they possibly consider her as a tribute? For a moment, Bethena felt a sort of panic stirring in her body. Thoughts of resistance and escape fluttered through her mind, and she found her eyes darting back and forth looking for an exit. Then her eyes fell on the twin metal prisons encapsulating her inept legs, and she remembered how hopeless her situation was. She looked at Rezanne lounging on the couch, one of her knees bent and her foot resting on the cushions. The heavy canvas cargo pants she wore were loose and irregular in shape, but Bethena was certain the woman’s legs were as sculpturally muscular as her arms. This woman had been flawlessly conditioned for physical combat, and she could instantly apprehend a little crippled girl with ease. Bethena saw the look of confidence and contentment on Rezanne’s chiseled face and knew there was no hope of escape. She would be taken from her home to a place where she would surely die. Never again would she have the chance to sit in the afternoon sun and trace her fingers across the intricate designs on the floor. Never again would she have the chance to read a book or build a machine. Worst of all… she would never have the chance to create music.
A new rush of grief and despair came over her at the realization that she would be forever taken from her life’s passion. She had only been creating music for a mere decade, and already it was at an end. All the agony of the loss was hitting her so suddenly, she did not even have time to process it fully.
“I’ll go with you...” The girl said.
“Of course you will. There’s no need to pack your things, everything will be provided to you. Your father will be informed later this--“
“I’ll go with you,” Bethena interrupted. “If you would just let me do something first.”
“Out of the question.” Rezanne said, standing up abruptly and stretching her back. “We leave now, no later. Come with me or I won’t hesitate to tranq you.”
“TEN MINUTES!!” Bethena yelled in a powerful voice as she stood up from the couch. Rezanne turned and faced her, shocked by the girl’s defiance. Her hand moved toward the tranquilizer gun holstered at her hip.
“Please…” Bethena said, her pretend forcefulness fading into true sadness and desperation. Painful tears suddenly fell from her eyes, and Rezanne watched in surprise as the girl bared her humanity. After a lifetime of pain and tragedy, the woman was normally unmoved by such displays of emotion. But something about this girl surprised her, and she felt strangely sympathetic.
“What do you want?” Rezanne asked.
Bethena’s eyes brightened a slight amount. “Just ten minutes… ten minutes in my music room, right over there.” She pointed to the distant end of the room.
“My forces have already swept this entire house, so if you’ve got a scheme going it won’t work.”
“No, I promise, I promise.” The girl said desperately. “I just want to play a song. One last song.”
Rezanne thought for a moment, her arms crossed against her chest. “Alright, ten minutes.”
Bethena bent down and locked her knee joints back in place, fingers abnormally fumbling in her nervous state. She hurriedly walked toward the high double doors that led to her music room, her shoes clacking rapidly against the hardwood floor. Rezanne followed her at a medium distance, her body relaxed but ready to chase down and tackle the girl if necessary. The woman’s detached demeanor was taken aback for a moment, however, as the small girl pushed the room’s doors open and revealed the room’s contents.
The room was gorgeous - a spacious replica of an ancient cathedral hall, with ornate stained glass windows lining the ceiling and letting in rays of multicolored light. Situated around the room were various large musical instruments such as pianos, harpsichords, and dulcimers. However, dwarfing all the other instruments, the furniture, and even the room itself was a mighty pipe organ at the far end of the room. Its pipes rose high into the air until they almost touched the ceiling, and the antique metals glistened in the soft light.
Bethena clambered toward the instrument and sat down on a small stool in front of the organ’s mighty keyboard console. She flicked on the electric power switch and heard the familiar rumbling of the many air compressors roaring to life. She began the laborious process of detaching her leg braces from the heavy leather garter encircling her waist. After all the clasps were unhinged, Bethena slid the braces out from under her skirt and set them on the floor. She stretched her feeble legs, massaging her tender knee ligaments with her fingertips. She slipped her shoes and socks off next, using her hands to manually stretch her ankles and toes out of their tensed state.
Rezanne strode toward the pipe organ, glad to see an antique cushioned chair near the front of the room. She pulled the chair into a position where she could carefully observe the girl, then sat down and watched with curiosity as the young woman continued her pre-performance stretching ritual.
Bethena popped the knuckles on each hand, then sat in contemplative silence for a moment. Her breathing grew deeper, and she slowly raised her hands up to the first of the instrument’s four keyboards. The question of what to play did not even occur to her - she would play the piece which had been her obsession since the age of eight, the piece which had caused her more grief and suffering than any other challenge she had undergone, the piece which she had eventually mastered to the amazement and praise of all who heard her perform it.
“Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor.” Bethena whispered for no one but herself. “By Johanne Sebastien Bach.”
And with that, Bethena’s final performance began. The first measure was played on the pedal board, utilizing the deep and resonant sounds of the bass pipes. Her twisted legs strained to reach all the pedals, her senseless toes jabbing blindly at the command of her domineering thigh muscles. It would be so easy to miss a pedal, to skip a beat, to wander off course in her delicate and complicated dance with the instrument. It would be so easy to lose one columnar bass note and watch the entire piece collapse into utter ruin and disaster; a shameful monument to Bethena’s physiological inferiority. If they were allowed any freedom at all, her legs would instantly fail in their task and ruin everything she had created thus far. And so, the girl gave them no say in the matter whatsoever. She devoted her willpower to commandeering her feeble lower extremities, forcing every muscle, tendon and ligament still capable of movement to do her exact bidding.
Her hands could take care of themselves; they were as marvelous a team of musicians as any orchestra, the right leading and the left supporting to produce a perfectly synchronous flow of notes. Bethena could simply give her hands free reign and watch in wonder as they built, note by note, the elaborate masterpiece of sound playing within her mind. She was very appreciative of her hands’ skill; their independence allowed her to focus more attention on keeping her pathetic, imbecilic legs in step. Bethena’s body was a terrible mechanism with which to play this profound piece of music on this wonderful instrument. It was in spite of all this, in spite of her deformity, that Bethena Berkizer had triumphed. She had decided that music was to be her life, and that no matter how much difficulty, pain, and suffering it might cause her, it was all worth it. No matter what happened in her life, no matter what she was subjected to, she could always come back to this instrument and be reminded of why she should continue to exist.
The somber, contemplative beauty of the Passacaglia slowly built into a gorgeous climax, and the pipes roared out in vengeful glory at Bethena’s command. Simultaneously, her other hand wove the piece seamlessly into the impending Fugue. Her fingers eagerly went to work as the intricate Fugue began, the notes easily sliding from the keys like water droplets rolling off of leaves during a subtle spring rain. With its quicker tempo and intricate footwork requirements, the Fugue presented a far greater challenge to Bethena. She had been playing this piece for eight years, but it was still a cruel and treacherous battle every time. The piece fought her at every turn, taking every chance to strike at her weaknesses, but Bethena would not allow her will to be denied. This music was her life, and she fought for it with every last shred of determination in her possession. She would not allow any mistakes - not this time. She knew she was going to die soon, and this was her last chance to get it right. If she failed now… then there was no point in living anyways.
Rezanne watched in amazement as the young woman continued her performance. The girl's ten minutes had already elapsed, but the woman was too fascinated to care. Unlike Bethena, Rezanne had grown up poor, in the districts, always struggling for survival while the people of the capitol lived in complete luxury. Like any other district dweller, she had always been bitter toward her rulers, her every waking moment confronted with the unfairness of their tyranny. When she came to apprehend Bethena, she was already prejudiced against her, already despising her for the luxury she had enjoyed at the expense of others. But as she watched this girl, her body wrecked and tormented by some incurable affliction, she began to question her own prejudice. Perhaps this girl was more than the spawn of greed and inequality. Perhaps she had been forged in a cruel and terrible furnace not so different from Rezanne’s. For as she sat and listened to Bethena Berkizer’s incredible musical performance, Rezanne felt there was no way anything evil could create such beauty.
Bethena’s body was entering an almost convulsive state as she recited the final crescendo of the Fugue. Her feet and fingers flew back and forth, the pain in her bones and joints completely overpowered by the surging pleasure of the music. She pounded the pedals down with her fragile toes, she slammed her fingers down onto each key. The air blasting out of the pipes reflected the vengeful fury boiling within Bethena’s fiery mind. Rezanne was gone. The world was gone. For her, there was only music. Music to possess, music to be possessed by. She did not care how much it hurt, how much it cost, for it would be hers. It would all be hers. All of it. Every. Last. Note.
She laid down the finale with unparalleled rage, the voices of the pipes shouting so loud they shook the entire room. The notes blasted from her fingertips and shot out into the world like lightning bolts from the hands of a god. This was her vengeance upon the world. This was the punishment that they deserved for all that she had been subjected to. The gods had cursed her beyond justice, and now they would feel her vengeful wrath forever and always…
Rezanne sat in stunned awe for several minutes after Bethena had finished. The girl’s fingers had lingered at the keyboard as the volume of that final note faded into nothingness. Rezanne looked at her face and saw the distant, vacant expression she was used to seeing on the faces of dying soldiers. Bethena’s body seemed ready to collapse after all the physical exertion, and Rezanne could see small bruises and bleeding cracks on the tips of each finger.
“Are you…” Rezanne began, her voice choking slightly. “Can you walk down the stairs?”
Bethena continued to stare ahead mournfully, a tear falling from her left eye.
“There’s a lift.”