Content Warning: This episode may include themes of kidnapping + abduction, drowning, violence, death + dying, animal death, suicide, abuse, and religious violence.
Intro - Duet
At first it is a whisper in your ears, two voices joined in harmony. One is high and soft; the other a baritone growl. In unison they are beautiful, but you cannot tell which direction they come from. The fog is too thick for that. You run blindly, unsure if you are being greeted or threatened. They are louder now, a song that surrounds you, and although it is not in any language you know, there are notes of grief that you understand. You stumble off a riverbank, your feet splashing in the dark water. You are between the voices now, and you turn to see an empty shape in the mist, a shadow of a man. You do not notice the webbed hands wrapping around your ankles until it is too late. “Hello,” the unholy duet sings, “Hello from the Hallowoods.”
Right now I’m running through the woods. It’s been a long time since I ran. I love the feeling of the wind in my fur, in my teeth. There is a german shepherd on either side of me, and they too know the feeling. It’s great. I highly recommend it. It is the song of survival and it is deep in all things that run. The theme of tonight’s episode is Songs.
Story 1 - Remember Things
Hector felt that he had not had an opportunity to relax in twenty years, and so sprinting through the forest came naturally to him. Jonah might have been about his age, but was clearly less accustomed to running long distances. Jackie and Heidi dashed ahead of Hector as they ran, bounding as though there were another dog to keep pace with. Hector lagged behind, keeping himself between Jonah and the croaking in the trees.
“You all right there, Jones?” Hector called, twirling his dredging line. The froglins rose like boils between the trees, singing a hunting song that shook the earth.
“I’m fine.” Jonah gasped. “Where are we going?”
“Tall trees. Sun’s going down; we might get lucky.”
The tamaracks gave way to dense black spruce up ahead, a fortress of trees looming into the blood red sky. The toads were venturing closer now, within snapping distance of Hector. One spat out a slimy black tongue, arcing towards him, but it caught in the razor edge of his hook, and the froglin backed away shrieking. As they dashed through the line of thick trees, Hector broke off to the side suddenly.
“Quiet, girls!” He shouted to the dogs, and they obeyed instantly, vanishing into the shadows of the forest.
Grabbing him by his shirt, Hector pulled Jonah through the needle-like branches, concealing them both beneath a towering spruce. Hector barely breathed, putting a finger to Jonah’s lips, demanding he still his violent panting.
Around them, the froglins croaked and roared, and through the thicket Hector could see huge glassy eyes looking for soft flesh, looking for him. Hector knew they were frogs, more or less, and they could see better in the dark than he could. Then again, some things that don’t see at all got along just fine in these woods, and he could use one right about now. He hoped the bloodthirsty song of the monstrous toads would be enough for them to hear. He looked to the treetops, and was rewarded. He gestured to Jonah, who at first could not discern the other form that lurked there. Then his eyes widened in horror.
Silently, a gigantic black hand reached out of the trees, plucking up a Froglin and raising it to a wide toothy maw. The shrieking of the frog, cut short by a crunch of green fluid, was enough to alert the others. The amphibious swarm howled at the intruder, and then the beast stepped through the trees. It was as tall as the highest spruce, with huge batlike ears and no eyes. Massive antlers curled upwards like fishing hooks, and from them hung what appeared to be trophies—bodies and limbs suspended by rope and fishing line.
Hector covered his ears as the Wandering Night-Gaunt shrieked too high for him to hear, piercing his skull, and then it tore into the plague of frogs. It snatched up the writhing creatures with twisted claws, plunging them into its wide smile or impaling them on its antlers. Despite its huge size, it moved in utter silence, a phantom in the night. The hunting cries broke into terrified shrieks and then to silence as the throng retreated through the trees, and the Night-Gaunt stepped over Hector’s hiding place as it followed the horde.
Hector realized that Jonah was pressed close to him, staring in terror at the sky, and stayed that way long after the hungry creatures of the woods were gone.
They found shelter in the tamaracks that night. Hector didn’t risk a fire so close to Night-Gaunt territory, but treated them both to dried fruit and meats from his waterproof pouch.
“Is your dog okay?” Jonah asked, looking at the german shepherds outside the little tent. Jackie seemed to be asleep, but Heidi was wide awake, with unblinking white eyes and a mouth full of exposed teeth.
“You know, I’m not really sure.” Hector laid back in the tent comfortably. “She’s been like that lately.”
“I’ve never seen a hallowed critter that didn’t try to bite everybody it ran into.” Jonah said. Perhaps it was just the cramped quarters, but he sat with his legs over Hector’s.
“I’ve got a theory they remember things.” Hector stared up at the roof of the tent. “What they used to be, right? Maybe they remember hunting, so they’re gonna hunt. Maybe they remember jerky snacks, so they’re gonna listen. I don’t know.”
Jonah nodded. “How is ma? I bet she’s been worried.”
“Zelda’s fine. Greeted me with a shotgun, like always. Met at the Dry Market a few years back, I’ve been checking up on her lately.”
“Well thank you for that. I’ve been trying to get her to move.” Jonah shrugged, settling in alongside Hector. “Live in at the Scoutpost. God forbid she falls or something and nobody is around.”
“Yeah.” Hector said, closing his eyes. “Fearless lady.”
Hector felt he had not had the opportunity to relax in twenty years, but in the warm space of the tent, listening to the man next to him breathe, he felt truly calm. Heidi seemed to keep watch outside, blank eyes reflecting the moon. Hector slipped into darkness, and in the early hours of the morning, he realized he was entangled with Jonah. He stayed there until the sun rose.
Interlude 1 - Local Poetry
Dreamers, today we are celebrating local poets in the Hallowoods. If you are a poet who lives within these trees, consider connecting with other poetry enthusiasts at one of these organizations. The Meaningful Dreams poetry group inside Dreaming Box Polaris, the Lurch Lake Poetry Club at Scoutpost One, the Unknown Choir that Sings in the Northern Wind anywhere the forest is dark enough, and the Poetry Circle at Webequie First Nation. Now we share words from a local poet.
Let me sleep forever until the suns stop rising and the oceans recede.
Let me sleep forever until the world turns to fire and the days turn to dust.
I will sleep from now until past the end of time itself and the end of the universe.
Let me sleep until this galaxy fades to nothing and a new one is reborn from its ashes.
I will sleep until this universe is so ancient that the sky is not just dotted with stars, but filled so completely that you can see nothing but light.
I will wake up to see that sight, and to witness the ending of a universe.
Let me sleep until I’ve forgotten how to rise, until I’ve forgotten how to speak, until I’ve forgotten the core of what makes me alive, because I don’t want to wake up to an infinity without you in it. Instead....Let me sleep forever until the sun stops rising.
This piece is from Democracy the Lich, a native of Lurch Lake Bottom, Northern Hallowoods. Thank you, Democracy. We go now to another local poet.
Story 2 - Rolling On
“I’m full of fire, you can’t break my spirit,” a young Valerie Maidstone sang, “Don’t tell me to sleep, I don’t wanna hear it—I can’t stay here, can’t rest, can’t sleep, I’ve gotta keep rolling on.”
Riot sat under a tree in the golden afternoon light, listening to her mother’s music. The solar panels had allowed her to charge her MP3 player, a gift she had not enjoyed since leaving the bunker. She didn’t often listen to her mother’s music, but now she found it a comfort. It was nice to hear her voice, even if it was from decades ago.
Around her, the Scoutpost buzzed with life. Children with patches sewn to their yellow jackets darted around running errands, and hardened farmers worked the gardens. Bern was showing a young girl how to sharpen knives safely. It was a vibrant community, a self-sustaining ecosystem, and everyone had a part to play except for Riot. She had kept her walls up as high as the steel ramparts of the Scoutpost, because just as these people needed to keep the forest at bay, Riot could not let them into her private world. She could not get attached, because Clara was still missing and her mom was probably losing her mind. Her arm was still in a sling, but she could walk, and that was enough.
“Riot,” Violet’s voice pierced the music in her earbuds, and she pulled one out, “there’s someone I’d like you to meet. This is Walt, he… well, he’ll tell you what he does. Are you okay to talk about what happened?”
Violet stood, an old lady with a smile that charmed warlords and convinced monsters to behave. Beside her was a tired-looking man in coveralls. A logo on his chest read ‘Walter Pensive’s Groundskeeping’.
“Yeah, sure.” Riot said, glancing at him warily.
Violet nodded to Walt, and went to bestow a cloth patch on a boy’s jacket. Walt huffed as he sat down, and pulled a book with a handwritten title out of his duffel bag.
“What’s that?” Riot asked.
“Well,” said Walt, “there’s all manner of odd things in these woods. Dead things walk around. Nature ain’t always natural. Far as I seen, nobody’s made a guide to it all, and folks will need one if they’re gonna keep living up in these parts.”
Riot nodded with some interest, offering a hand. Walt passed her the book. ‘Walter Pensive’s Hallowoods Almanac’, the title read.
“Hallowoods.” Riot said. The word was unfamiliar on her tongue.
“The trees are black here.” Walt said. “A couple hundred miles south, they’re green. Go far enough north and they turn colors I never seen. This place has become something else, you know? Hallowed means holy, like god’s looked down and said ‘that ground. That ground is special’. Can’t figure a better meaning for a place where the water brings you back to life.”
“Are ghosts real? My girlfriend has a ghost dog.” Riot asked, flipping through his book. The pages were filled with sketches, some similar to animals she knew, others entirely different.
“I’d be interested to meet that dog.” Walter said. “Up here, the dead don’t always move on peaceful-like. There’s people sleeping in Lurch Lake, waiting for the end of the world I reckon. But a ghost, like a real classic ghost? Haven’t crossed none so far. I hear though, that they go along with this Instrumentalist. I was hoping you could tell me more about that.”
Riot nodded. Walt pulled a pen from behind his ear, and a clipboard from his bag. She liked him, she decided. There was a kindness in his weary eyes that was unlike the patriarchs her mother had met, and unlike the Instrumentalist.
“He was an old man in a red coat. Long white hair, a beard. Big round glasses.” Riot sat back against the tree. Her mom’s music continued to blare in her ear.
“Back when I lived with my mom, I wasn’t allowed to talk on the radio - but I would listen in. People talked about the music they heard at night, the Instrumentalist. I always thought it’d be a lady. There were these instruments with him, I think—he didn’t hold them exactly, but he played them somehow. And…” Riot tried to find words for the images that haunted her dreams lately. “There was a lady. With a face all cracked open, like she was screaming. When the music played, she moved. You could see right through her, but she tore up Bern pretty bad.”
Walt nodded, and clicked his pen. He looked up at the sky, as if searching for information.
“Walt, can you keep a secret?”
His dour expression lit up, and he nodded intently. “With my life.”
She removed the skeleton key from her pocket, and handed it over to him curiously. He turned it over in his hands, admiring the skull in the handle and its crown of flowers.
“What is this?”
“I stole it from him. The Instrumentalist.”
Walt glanced at her in disbelief. “How the heck did you manage that?”
“The first night, he started chasing me and my girlfriend? I went to distract him, to let her get away. It was dark, but he came so close, and I had my knife on me. It was swinging on a little chain, so I nabbed it. It seemed important. I don’t know what it’s for.”
Walt nodded, tucking it back into Riot’s hands. “I’d keep that safe if I were you. That’s, ah. Well I’m sure it’s important. I tell you what, I’ll do some digging, read a couple books, see if I can find anything about a key like that.”
Riot placed it carefully back in her vest.
“What are you listening to?” Walt asked. Riot offered him an earbud.
“It’s my mom’s music.”
He placed it to his head, and laughed in disbelief. “No kidding. Your mom is Valerie Maidstone? Is she here?”
Riot shook her head, and grimaced. “No, I kind of took off. I’ll need to be getting back soon.”
“If you can introduce me sometime I’d appreciate it.” Walt laughed, handing her the earbud. “But thanks for letting me bother you. You know, if you ever need a job, drop me a line, I could use the help. Violet’s got my contact.”
Walt stood up, dusting the grass from his coveralls, and departed. A white hearse rumbled by minutes later, rolling through the trees until the path turned, and it disappeared from sight.
“Gotta keep moving,” her mother sang in her ear, “gotta keep rolling. Sleep in the belfry, church bells are tolling. Gotta keep moving, gotta keep rolling on.”
Hello my dear Dreaming Box family. I am Lady Ethel Mallory, and today I have to talk about something that affects all of us: the power of hate. Hate divides us, and weakens the love and support that is the Dreaming Box.
Rest assured, Valerie Maidstone is still receiving medical care of the highest quality after her unfortunate health complications as a result of her time in the wasted and dangerous world outside. She will return to the Prime Dream as soon as she is well, and she is not affiliated with the terrorist group that have adopted her franchise. If anyone you know identifies with the terrorist group Stonemaids, please report them to a Botulus Corporation contact terminal so they can get the rehabilitation they...
Story 2, Continued - Rolling On
Throat clearing, vengeful hiss.
We return now to Riot Maidstone.
Riot left quietly, dropping over the back wall of the Scoutpost with more grace than her last attempt. She had no way to repay Violet and Bern for all the things they had given her—a place to stay, medical care, a bag full of supplies, and a pair of knitted socks. The blanket in her bag smelled like the Scoutpost; coffee and cinnamon and fresh violets. She left her MP3 player on the bed. It was all she had to give, and someone would love it as much as she had. She laid out the earbuds like a heart on the bedspread.
Bern had said she’d taken a search party and found nothing, but it was impossible to know if they’d even checked the right twist in the trail. Riot knew Clara, and that she would still be waiting. It was a couple day’s walk through the network of unmarked roads, and she hid from the odd passing vehicle.
There was a truck parked at the clearing when she drew close, and she approached nervously, pulling her spiked bat into her free hand.
“Clara?” She yelled. It would be unlike Clara to make new friends, but a lot could have changed in a few weeks. The green truck looked familiar, but she couldn’t be sure until she rounded the corner, and Violet and Bern stood in the empty clearing.
“I knew you’d come back here.” Bern said, gesturing around. Riot held her bat close, unsure what to do. “Told you I checked it over already. Tracks lead in, they lead out. Froglin prints all about. Ran up and down the road, couldn’t find where she broke off.”
Riot dropped her bat, shaking. “She wouldn’t leave.”
Violet stepped forward, wincing. “She might not have had a choice, hun. This forest is a dangerous place. I’m sure she’s alright. We’ll keep looking. But for now, can we take you back to the Scoutpost? You can stay as long as you like.”
Riot shook her head, tears rolling down her face. “I have to go back to my mom.”
“We’ll take you there then.” Violet said, and Bern nodded. “We’re not leaving you alone.”
It was a few hours in the truck. Riot sat in the back seat, providing occasional directions to Bern. Violet talked to nobody in particular, reminding Riot several times over the course of the ride that she would always be welcome. Riot wanted desperately to accept that, but she knew that as soon as she returned to the black hole in the mountainside, her mom would never let her see the light of day again. And she would deserve it, for hiding years of conversation with a lonely girl in a mansion, for running, for stealing the RV. It had all turned out to be a terrible mistake.
When the road gave way to rocky slopes, Violet and Bern insisted on following her up, despite her protests, and swore to never share the location. Her mom had drilled that into her brain over the years. Finally, she reached the doors, hidden in a cavity in the mountainside. She cried when she said goodbye to Violet, and hugged Bern. Then she turned and faced the bunker.
The door was open, and she knew that was the first sign that something was wrong. The lights were off in the hall, except for one singular source at the end that flickered. The shelves were bare, stripped of the art and books and plants that had kept her company for most of her life. She stumbled down the passage in horror.
“Mom?” She called, and her voice echoed in the empty hollow of the bunker. In the cavernous domed chamber that served as a living room, the television had been dragged to the center of the floor, cables running to a small silver box in front of it. It buzzed to life as Riot approached, holding her bat, and the screen flickered on to reveal grainy vintage film, except she knew the woman in the heart-shaped sunglasses.
“It’s nice to see you, Riot,” she smiled with all her teeth, “your mother has been so worried about you. Stay just where you are. We’ll bring you to her very soon.”
Interlude 2 - Space is Full of Music
When I talk to humans—it may shock you, Dreamers, but I have spoken with them on several occasions, and one of my best friends was a human—they tell me they think that space is silent. This could not be further from the truth. Space is full of music, even if you do not have the capacity to hear it. Song rises from the rings of Saturn like the strings of a cello, worlds rise and are destroyed in orchestral movements. The stars ring like a symphony of bells, and I look up to them and listen. They remind me of home, and the days when I was young, and in love. We go now to someone who is tired of music.
Story 3 - It Yet Needs Strings
One more violin song, Zelda thought, and I may kill this man. She had already thought about it, of course. She had little else to do in the darkness except think. She thought about her Jonah, and hoped that her friend Hector had found him out in the woods somewhere, hungry but alive. The sea had always been Jonah’s specialty; land seemed to confuse him. We all have our place, she thought, and apparently mine is strung up in the basement of this musical maniac, who likes to play violin at all hours of the night.
“Keep it down, will you?” Zelda shouted.
The music screeched to a halt. There was a scraping across the floorboards above her as the old gargoyle hobbled. Zelda sighed, and blinked in pain as the door at the top of the stairs swung open, letting in the light. It glinted off blurry objects she could not see clearly.
“It’s gotta be two in the morning.” She said. “Can you let the poor violin rest?”
“It’s a fiddle.” Solomon said, out of her view. “When the Lord first spoke, and the music of his voice created all that is, he did not wait for the daylight.”
“Solomon,” she said, pulling against the loops of wire, “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but if you don’t let me go, I promise you you’ll regret it.”
He stepped down the basement stairs and into the darkness. There was something too spry in the way he moved. “You have a defiant spirit.” He said, glasses glinting in the dark. “This must be put to death in a woman, that she may serve her husband.”
“I shot my husband.” Zelda spat.
“Serve the lord, then. I serve him with my hands. I create his instruments.” Solomon admonished, and switched on the basement light. Zelda realized she was in a room of instruments, hanging in all kinds from the walls. At the far end was a cabinet like the one that had appeared in her husband’s study—a gift from the library, she had guessed. The center of the room belonged to a work bench covered in small knives, and directly in front of her, a large sculpture of wood, with hollow patterns carved across its surface.
“What is that?” she blinked.
“It is a harp, or will be a harp. It yet needs strings, and something that was taken from me; I’ll have it back soon - and your bone, for the inlays, of course.”
Solomon nodded in the light, noticing that she had quieted, transfixed by the instrument.
“I will leave you two to get acquainted.”
He left the light on and ascended the stairs. Moments later, the fiddle played again.
Outro - Songs
Songs. Songs have a power to create understanding, melodies say things that words cannot. In a way, they have more power than words, but I never had an ear for music. To hear a song is to listen in on a different consciousness, and to sing is to share a piece of your soul. I will miss the music the most, perhaps, when humanity’s final note is played. Until the last song is sung, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting and listening for your return to the Hallowoods.
Notes: Today's 'Local Poetry' was written by the talented Kat Wellman, a poet, artist, and stage producer. Please connect with her on Instagram at @introvertedunicorn to follow her creative exploits.