Content warnings for this episode include: Child Abuse, Ableism, Al has no skin as usual, Religious Violence, Death + Injury, Blood, Misogyny, Transphobia, Homophobia, Gun Mention, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs, Animal Death (a worm), Body horror, Old Men Talking About The Old Testament
Intro - Spare The Rod
Spare the rod, spare the child. The words were written on your skin like welts. You fought at first, screamed in protest for you and your siblings, until the pain took your words away.
You did not understand until later, kneeling in an empty church basement, a portrait of a crucified man between plastic garlands. Your eyes were opened. Pain burns out infection of the spirit like alcohol in a wound. How else would you learn to banish wickedness?
You are like me, says the man in the portrait. Purified through suffering.
It is years later, and you are no longer a child, but you have one of your own, and he has just thrown a rock at his sister, and looks up to you in defiance, and you remember: spare the rod, spoil the child. His screams echo far, to a forest just beginning to whisper Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I linger in the top of a large open gate. The doors are of wooden boards, its frame of living bark. Beneath me, a child bundled in a hand-me-down coat slips out into the woods, a drum tied to his backpack, and runs in abandon of his duties. The theme of tonight’s episode is Disciplines.
Story 1 - To Keep A Friend
Russell took the first few steps as though he was out for a casual stroll to Lurch Lake, but as soon as he was out of the Scoutpost walls and beyond their watchful gaze, he broke off into a run through the underbrush, pushed past black branches and briar bushes. His pattering steps came to a stop in a familiar clearing—one with a tree with a thousand empty pits in its bark, the dead Watching Tree. Piles of rotting acorns still sat within its empty hollows; it was the tree where Mr. Friendly had once tried to store him for winter. It seemed less imposing now in the cold morning light than it did in his nightmares. He glanced behind him, breath forming in misty clouds, before tapping on a drum that hung behind his shoulder.
“Anyone see us?” he said.
“No one is following,” said a whisper, and a spirit faded into existence, sitting on a tree branch above; Al was as transparent as Russell’s condensing breaths. “I think our secret mission is in the clear!”
“Awesome,” Russell said, and he fished the copper card from his coat pocket. “Do you think your gramma will notice we took this?”
“I don’t think so,” Al said, drifting down; his ghost was skinless, with skeletal little feet that hung crooked in the air, tied to the drum with long phantasmal bands of leather. “There’s lots of things she doesn’t notice these days.”
“Well, let’s hope that it’s close enough to be there and back before school is over,” Russell nodded, and held the card in both of his hands, and dropped it suddenly.
“What’s wrong?” said Al, hovering over his shoulder now. “Did it hurt you?”
“No, it’s just… it said my name. See?” Russell said, and stooped over the copper card laying in the pine needles. The letters cut into the card had said ‘Downing Hill Public Library’ a moment ago, but now it said ‘Hello Russell’, and those letters were changing again, flickering into a new shape. ‘Go North’.
“So that’s how it works?” Russell said, and looked up at Al. “It gives us directions?”
“I don’t know any more than you do,” said Al.
“Yeah, but you were the one the raven-person invited to school,” Russell said, and reached down, picked the card up. It was cold to the touch. ‘Go North’ remained.
“Maybe if I learned at the school, I would know how the card worked,” Al said.
“But you’re not,” Russell said, and stuck the card in his pocket, looked up to Al and the grey sky. “You’re not going to learn there. Just see it, right? And then we go back home?”
“Well yeah,” Al said, and stared with his lidless eyes. “That’s what we said.”
“Then that’s what we’re doing,” Russell reiterated, and fished in his pocket for a compass, and flicked it open. The red arm of the north pointed into the forest, away from the Scoutpost.
“Are you scared?” Al said, right next to his ear, and he almost jumped.
“Why would I be scared?” Russell said, tried to laugh. “I go in the forest all the time. I’ve got three wildlife safety badges, see? And knife skills, and Survival Two, and how to fight a hundred evil birds…”
“That’s not a real one,” Al interjected.
“No, it’s not,” Russell said.
“And the birds aren’t evil,” Al continued. “They’re helpful. They told me about school. People called me evil too, and I’m not evil.”
“Sorry,” Russell said, and snapped his compass shut. “I know that. But yeah. I am a little spooked.”
“That’s okay,” Al said, and descended to hover over the forest floor ahead, and smiled his always smile of exposed teeth, and began to drift quickly away into the trees. “If you get scared you can hide behind me!”
“Fat chance!” Russell said, and ran after Al, deeper into the woods, backpack rattling with every plodding step. The things you do for your friends, he thought. But if it meant he got to keep his friends, then he would walk to the ends of the earth.
Interlude 1 - Survival Or Not
Survival requires constant vigilance—always keep one eye on the horizon, and one on your friends, and one on your wallet. Your mind must be keen, your senses sharp. There are so many resources to manage, time and food and energy, and if any are neglected, you run the risk of destruction. Danger lurks at every turn, and you must remain one step ahead of the unknowable future!
Not surviving, on the other hand, is quite simple. You may sleep, in a pit of earth or a grave of dark water if you like, and the forest animals nestle in you for warmth and sustenance, and the passing winters flicker like lights, take from you that weighty flesh, unburden you of your bones, until you think not even of resting, for nothing of you remains at all.
Unfortunately, a side effect of not surviving is that you can no longer influence the world around you, and if you leave it as it is, it will not be any easier for the next person who comes along.
We go now to one used to surviving.
Story 2 - Churches Old And New
Mrs. Wicker walked through the black trees, branches brushing past her canvas cloak, which she wore wrapped tightly around her head and shoulders. She had agreed to stay out of the forest, yes, and even though it was improbable that anyone would notice a single traveler journeying in from the outskirts, she kept a careful eye out for yellow jackets between the trees, or any of the deadly brutes that ran the Scoutpost leveling a weapon at her.
As it was, the only shape to break up the monotony of the treeline was a stone tower in the distance, and she approached, put away the envelope with her directions as she drew near.
There were no walls, but the forest’s wild tangle of roots and twisted boughs stopped in neat edges, and the ground within was paved with gravel and green grass, and held two buildings—one a modern construction of sleek wood and black glass that would have been at home in the neighborhoods of her youth. The other was older, a stone chapel with stained glass windows and inscriptions worn smooth by many storms.
A single figure stood in the middle of the entry path, a short man with a halo of white hair around his bald head, and a plaid church suit and tie. He raised his hands in welcome as he caught sight of her; the afternoon light cast long shadows these days.
“Mrs. Wicker?” he called, as jovially as if spotting her on a New Hampshire sidewalk.
“Yes,” she called back, approaching no quicker. He smiled patiently as she reached the gates. “Who am I speaking with?”
“My congregation simply calls me the Vicar,” he said, and bowed his head in a polite nod. “I find it helps to remind me of my purpose in the Lord's will. Welcome to the Church of the Hallowed Name. I am so glad you could make it.”
“I was surprised to receive a letter, of all things,” said Mrs. Wicker. “It has been a long time since I got a letter. Why did you invite me here?”
“I understand your hesitation,” the Vicar said, and took a small step back so as not to encroach on her personal space. “We all received our invitation at one point or another. Each because he had demonstrated qualities of character that are agreeable to the congregation. While we do not turn anyone away, we look for like minded spirits, you understand.”
“I did not think I would find any like-minded spirits here,” she replied.
“We are a blessing unto each other, in that regard,” said the Vicar, and turned a bit. “May I show you the grounds?”
“That would be alright,” Mrs. Wicker said, and glanced around to see if any other members of his so-called congregation were waiting in the trees, but could find none. “So this invitation is just for me?”
“Yes, it is largely a case-by-case…”
“Can I bring my children?”
The Vicar paused for a moment; they were nearly to the modern building by now.
“Why don’t you come to the first few services alone,” he said. “But in time, we can introduce them, yes.”
“How do you have these buildings?” Mrs. Wicker said, following him in through the doors. She usually would be on her guard meeting a strange man alone, but the Vicar radiated peace and comfort like a cherub. Also, Joshua was parked in the truck on the outskirts of the woods with a rifle, and would come looking if she was gone longer than a few hours. This responsibility would normally have fallen to Jacob, but with his leg how it was, he was no good to her in these situations now.
“Our church has a long history, and many resources at our disposal,” the Vicar said, and led her to an interior hall—mahogany pews stretched out on both sides of a red carpet; a velvet covering was draped over an altar on the stage. Overhead, the ceiling was a glittering prism of black glass that trapped the sunlight and made it to sparkle.
“This hall, our new church, was built just over twenty years ago—back before the unpleasantness of the end times began, and you could still get a decent burger.” The Vicar smiled, but Mrs. Wicker did not. “Please, feel free to ask any questions you…”
“Do you worship Jesus?” Mrs. Wicker said. The abyssal ceiling, the drapes, the words ‘the deep, the darkness, and the dawn’ emblazoned on the decorative trim seemed more fit for a palace of Babylon or a satanist’s den. “Or are you one of those churches that practices false doctrine, and throws out the Bible and…”
“Rest assured, Mrs. Wicker, you might say we are even more devoted to the original scripture than most. The Church of the Hallowed Name was born to fight blasphemy, to preserve the true meaning of the words that God has given to us. And our mission in doing that goes back far indeed.”
She nodded, inspected one of the pews; the bibles in the front pockets were neat, the prayer and hymn books resembled the ones she’d used to thumb through.
“We begin each Sunday at eight,” he said. “There is music, a sermon… a short sermon, although I do ramble sometimes. Special services depending on the holiday. But most importantly, there is community. You are not alone, Mrs. Wicker. There are still good people left in this world, and you are welcome to join us.”
The meandering tour of the main hall had looped back around to the door.
“I do not entirely understand how this place exists,” Mrs. Wicker said. “Why you want me here.”
“I am happy to elaborate,” said the Vicar, with another patient smile. “Let’s talk in the old chapel.”
Marketing - Highlands Graveyard
I’ve gone somewhere. Not meaning to, you know, but just walked and then found I had walked to a place. I used to do that all the time, before things got so busy. Everything I’ve done for the last twenty years has had a day and a time and a schedule hour assigned, always with some assistant or another to put everything in order, catalog the pages of my life.
Brooklyn, if you can hear this, I hope the Stonemaids have learned what a scheming little rodent you are. I trusted you. You more than anyone. That man, he ruined you, all your potential. You could have been the next Melanie Flores. You could have been the next me.
I’m sitting in a graveyard. So inefficient compared to a Dreaming Garden. The ocean has risen almost to the edge of it, and the water pulls in one stone at a time. It looks delicious, but I can’t drink it. I don’t know where I’m going to get my concentrate now. I can already feel the withdrawals setting in…
Story 2, Continued - Churches Old And New
Someone take that little box away from her. Please. I will smile upon you and describe you nicely to the dreaming audience if you can just. Stop her from broadcasting.
We return now to Kellyanne Wicker.
Mrs. Wicker liked the old chapel much more. It felt recognizable as a church, with old stonework and tapestries of saints, and a large stained glass window that bathed the room in saintly light. The pews were battered and wooden, and although she did not notice until looking around, the massive organ took up the back wall of the chapel, towering pipes that stretched to the roof, a myriad of keys in many layers.
“You like it?” the Vicar said, and nodded to the instrument. “It was built by a past member of our congregation, although it is not quite complete. Has not yet been tuned, one might say. He always was one to work with his hands.”
“One man built this?” she said, stared up in awe. “The work is extraordinary, though I have to say I’m not familiar with the layout.”
“An organ player, are you?” the Vicar noted, and walked slowly for the front of the room, sat on the step in front of a simple stone altar.
“I used to sing in church,” Mrs. Wicker said. “And play the piano for my husband during his sermons. He was a pastor, you know.”
“Really?” the Vicar said, and smiled wider than he had shown before. “You know, since his passing, we have been short an Instrumentalist. You might very well be able to fill those shoes.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Mrs. Wicker, and found a seat on the front row of pews, across from the Vicar. “Was he a good man?”
“Thank you,” said the Vicar. “He was one of the most devout scholars I knew, but he did have one vice—he stole something from the church. He thought I would not notice. But no one steals from me; I own nothing. I am only a servant of God, and everything I steward belongs to God. To steal from God is something he does not look lightly upon, and you can trust that God will return tenfold upon you. I still miss his conversations, from time to time. I hope he was able to make peace with the Lord in his final moments.”
Mrs. Wicker was aware of one chief vagary in the story, and at the risk of being rude, she thought it best to pursue. “Can I ask how this friend of yours died?”
“There are several communities in these parts besides our congregation,” said the Vicar, “but few further from God than the one called the Scoutpost. They enacted that violence against him.”
“I am familiar with them,” she sighed. “I tried to make them see the Lord’s love, but they are…”
“Recalcitrant,” said the Vicar. “It is not the first time they have laughed in the face of salvation. It was your dutiful attempt to help them out of their sin that brought you to the attention of our congregation. We need soldiers for the Lord’s cause, not simply sitters-on-benches.”
“I am not a soldier,” she said, and pursed her lips. “I am a mother. A teacher.”
“In the army of the lord, a song is a weapon,” smiled the Vicar. “And now more than ever, we could use your voice in our chorus.”
“I am interested to meet others of a like mind,” she said, and nodded. She was already becoming accustomed to the quiet here, the aura of infinite peace that shone through the glass. “How does a new member join your congregation?”
“We will do a little ceremony at the start of service,” said the Vicar. “An icebreaker, if you will, to introduce you to the congregation. We will ask you to share a little about your life, your family, what your journey with the Lord has been like. And we will baptise you…”
“I have already been baptised.”
“Oh, certainly, as have most. But it is symbolic of a new chapter for you, and that as you join our congregation, all the sins of the past—even of this difficult age—are washed away. We are all equal, and pure, in God’s eyes.”
“That is all?”
“That is all,” said the Vicar, and clapped his hands on his knees. “And try not to be too frightened by any overly friendly faces. They will be excited to see a new member grace our sermons. And if we are lucky, hear some of your piano!”
“Yes,” Mrs. Wicker said, and smiled. “Then, I am happy to join your Church.”
Interlude 2 - The Craft of Dream
When I first stepped into this universe, my eyes were alight with boundless potential—so many possible futures, and all of them at my grasp. I could be anything, pursue whatever path struck my fancy, fly free in the wind.
It was not long after, however, that I was informed this was not the case. There were hierarchies and systems in place, order and rule to maintain. You should put aside these childish whims, Nikignik, for as surely as the Industry burns, and the world-eater rots, and the ever-storm sets the winds to spin, you are good for guarding the gates of eternity. It really is an honor to be bestowed such responsibility. So do it please, quickly and without complaint.
How lucky I am that I left. That I went to study beneath the wing of the one who dreams forever, and in his dreams he passed to me the gift of dream. My eyes did light then, dreamer, for dreams are beautiful to me, and worth learning how to craft well.
And now, this is how I speak to you.
We go now to one who does not dream.
Story 3 - Last On The List
Cindy Lockheart was, perhaps, comprised of lists. That was what a mind was, in her estimation. A list of basic survival needs, getting checked off with every meal and sleep and bathing opportunity. A list of advanced survival needs, checking for threats, environmental scans, listening for the ever-too-quiet sound of Botco drone wings. And then there was the list she referred to the most presently, which was the tasks, one after another, that led to the outcome of destroying an ancient extraterrestrial artifact that was poisoning the earth, organized into sequential order in 24-hour increments, prone to rearrangement based on how the weather moved or who died along the way. And there was an ever closing window of time.
Less than seventy hours, now, until they walked out of the Scoutpost—and subsequently, a list of things to do before she left. And this was, although something so odd she’d have been amazed to picture it a few months ago, one of them. She approached the dead thing kneeling in the garden, prying black gourds out of the crumbled earth.
“Hello,” the being said, although it did not look up and she had approached as silently as ever.
“Leyland, was it?” she said. She had a list of names, although with seven of these about, it was hard to be completely sure.
“I am Leyland Blooms,” said the gardener, scooping earth with hands like sharp spades. “And you are Cindy Lockheart. One of Diggory’s past selves knew you.”
Cindy twitched. Her wife was not ‘one of’ anything; she was an angel among women. Diggory was a consequence, not a reward of what had happened, but she felt expressing that right now might put her task in jeopardy.
“Where is Diggory?” she said. “Their friends do not seem to know, but I expect you do.”
“I do not know where Diggory is,” Leyland said, and looked up; their patchwork of skin was as cold and crude as their counterparts. “Is this the only question you have for me? If so, I will return to my gardening.”
“Can’t be much left to do by now,” Cindy observed. “Winter’s almost here.”
“It is,” said Leyland. Their eyes were pale, glazed white.
“I don’t suppose you have any plans,” Cindy said. “For the winter.”
“Why would I?” Leyland said, and tilted their head back to the earth. “Nothing will grow. I will spend it planning out the next year’s garden. Waiting for the earth to thaw. Perhaps tend to my perennials.”
“I have an alternate suggestion,” Cindy said, even-handedly. “You could come with me, and Diggory, and a few others. Our expedition will…”
“I am Leyland Blooms,” said Leyland. “I am the groundskeeper, the gardener.”
“Your lot could practically do it yourselves, I’d reckon,” Cindy said, watched a worm inch free of the soil. “You’re not restricted by temperature or food or water. You don’t get tired. And you kill faster than a polar bear could blink.”
“I see,” Leyland said, and rose in a single smooth motion, brushed the dirt from their apron. They stood together, two dismal strangers beneath a withered trellis. “You seem to be under the impression that I might be interested in such a thing.”
Cindy was prone to saying similar things, but even she was taken aback for a moment.
“Diggory is going,” she said. “Your own… well, not your own flesh. Your own kin. You’d let them walk into danger alone?”
“They will not be alone,” said Leyland, and watched her unseeingly.
“If we die, they will be,” Cindy said, and stepped in a little closer, searched for the kind of weakness she needed to get a foothold.
“They will not be alone,” Leyland repeated slowly, and placed their hands in their apron pockets, and almost smiled. “None of us ever are.”
“I feel we’ve gotten off track,” Cindy said, and pushed away the strand of hair that had escaped her ponytail. “I am asking you to join my mission.”
“I already have my mission,” Leyland said, and there was an expression there, but not one that she wanted—it looked almost like pity. “I am Leyland Blooms. I have peace, I function as a being, because all the parts of me agree on one thing. And that is to plant. To grow. TO nourish the soil, and keep the grounds tidy. I was made of pieces specifically to accomplish this, and this alone.”
They lifted a hand, clicked their spade fingers.
“You are a person, are you not? Or so Diggory claims,” Cindy said, and stepped on the worm encroaching on her boot. “If you choose not to go, and the mission fails, it was your choice that…”
“It is not my mission,” Leyland said. She realized now that she was being surveilled, the face of Cookery in the kitchen window, a nod from Huntington on the far side of the courtyard. “My work is what I am best at. Diggory’s work is their own, and they will complete it with or without you. It is what unifies them. And when they return, they will find that my work has ensured that when spring arrives, the flowers bloom.”
Cindy stared up at the florid giant a moment, and looked down to the barren earth, and drew a line through an item in her mental checklist.
“Very well then,” she said, and turned to seek out her next task. “You had best hope that there is a spring.”
Outro - Disciplines
Disciplines. I prefer to reserve violence for my enemies. Them I shall devour in a fit of blood-hungry rage, or transfix them with my nightmarish gaze, or set them to light in crimson flame. Yes. My enemies shall I destroy.
But were I to take another under my wing, as Dreaming All That Is once took me, I do not think I would be as strict as he was. I do not believe any good practice or instruction of method is worth bringing harm upon those I teach.
Those battles I overcome with words, for I have many of them. And I trust that in time, you will learn to understand the significance of the details I instruct to you. By now, I think you have already begun to. Until the rod and staff are broken, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting interdisciplinarily for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'The Ladder', and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!