HFTH - Episode 26 - Needles


Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Abuse, Animal death, Self-harm and Suicide, Violence, Kidnapping and Abduction, Death + Injury, Sexism and Misogyny, Transphobia, Homophobia, Misgendering, Emotional Manipulation, Body Horror, and Alcohol.


Intro - Tattery Stabs

Your skin is quilt and your flesh is cotton. You were put together with steel and sewing thread, buttons sewn in for your eyes. But you are different. They don’t know that you can see, that you can feel. That you hate when they pick you up and rattle you, and pull at your pretty eyes and your yarn hair. The father is despicable, broken. A shell without a soul, drained by the years and the darkness and the cold.


The mother is not much better, a harbinger of concern. Will there be enough food, will they get in tonight, what will we do to stay warm? She has all the questions and no answers. You play cruel pranks on them. They probably deserve it. But their daughter is different. She shakes in the winter nights and you comfort her.


When her parents lash out, you make sure they regret it. And when the crawling things come creeping into the house, you are saying ‘stay away from my child’. You are saying ‘Hello from the Hallowoods’.


Theme.


Right now I’m sitting in a cloth tent. There are dozens of them in the market, stretching off across the sands of the black lake. They sell so many broken things, a patchwork of life as it was before. The theme of tonight’s episode is Needles.



Story 1 - The Friends of Zelda

There were many things in life that Hector Mendoza did not trust, and the parking lot of the Dry Market was one of them. At the largest congregation of scavengers, cutthroats, and cold-blooded survivalists in the far north, leaving a working motorcycle out in the open seemed like asking fate to kick you in the teeth and steal your wallet. As always, he left his pride and joy in the brush a half mile out, and jangled the keys in his pocket as he trudged towards the beach.


He scanned the parking lot with dismay as he noted that Jonah’s rusty red pickup was not present—he had hoped, just maybe, that Zelda would be here, perfectly safe, gone a little long for errands. But she was missing still, and that meant he couldn’t stay long. He whistled, and his dogs looked at him with a weary curiosity.


“Stay close now,” he said. “Let’s find you some food.”


The tents and stalls of the Dry Market spread out in every direction, and Hector found them oddly comforting. Fabrics, dry goods, scavenged metals, antiques and curiosities reminded him that there was some trace of a normal world left. The air smelled like spices and hot food, and for the first time in recent memory, he was surrounded by the sound of other human beings—he had not heard another person since Jonah’s dying screams. Dangerous as other people were, you couldn’t have a world without them.


The layout of the colorful stalls shifted every week, but he found his first step quickly enough. The sign was the same as always: ‘Alder’s Odds and Ends’, but he did not recognize the young face behind the table.


“Where’s Tom?” Hector asked, dropping his bag on the counter.


The kid glared up at him, snapping her book shut. “Tom’s busy. Something I can do for you?”


“Maybe,” Hector said. Tom’s usefulness was twofold—he tended to trust Hector’s appraisals without the usual petty barter, but he also had a finger on the pulse of what went on in the north. He would have been the first person to ask about Zelda’s disappearance. “You sure Tom ain’t around?”


“You want Tom, you can come back another day.” She crossed her arms.


Hector shrugged. He’d come too far to deal with an attitude. “Suits me.”


He hefted his bag away, moseying into the market. Tom was his usual go-to for disposing of his wares, but he’d done business with others before. He was keeping an eye out for familiar faces when he noticed that only Jackie was following him. There was no sign of the other German Shepherd.


Hector cursed under his breath as he retraced his steps, rounding a corner in the maze of shops to find the twisted dog staring at a booth, sitting quietly.


“Sorry about that,” Hector waved, approaching the display of goods. “What’d you find, girl?”


The shop was unfamiliar to him, and did not have a sign in place. The wares spread out were as eclectic as what he carried—various knives and multitools, dried-out books, old coins, and other trinkets you’d expect to find in the pockets of the dead—but items Hector hadn’t seen before, too. A burnt-out silver shell that might at one time have been a portable Dreaming Box. There were many jars, with odd specimens bobbing in brine. Heidi seemed fixed on a jar that contained a long silver needle, dangling from a string.


“Oh she’s beautiful,” a voice whispered, and Hector caught a flash of eyes within the darkness of the tent. He smiled peaceably, although beautiful was not a word he would have chosen to describe the altered state of the dog.


“Thanks,” Hector said. “You buying, by any chance?”


“If you have anything that piques my interest,” the voice replied, and brown, wrinkled hands reached out to clear away the curiosities. A face came into the light, a woman with wizened eyes and a scarf of deep reds and purples across her forehead. Gold earrings flashed in the shadow.


Hector emptied his bag—several good knives, an antique compass, a wristwatch that still ticked. A full set of playing cards featuring Birds of Canada, paracord, a survival saw, an assortment of wedding bands, a glass eye, and a little weathered flask. The woman took a sniff of the contents and nodded approvingly. The copper card that read ‘Downing Hill Public Library’ clattered out of his bag as he went through it, and immediately it was in the woman’s hands.


“Where did you get this?” she demanded, dark eyes flashing up at Hector.


“Found it in the marsh, like most of this lot,” Hector said. “Not sure I want to part with it. Has some unique qualities.”


The woman glanced over his offerings, eyes turning to the sky as if to calculate.


“I’ve got enough scoutcoin for three months of food,” she said.


“That’s nice. I don’t deal in scoutcoin.”


“Five hundred in market credit, then,” she continued, “or a thousand if you’ll sell me the card. Your choice.”


“Good enough for me,” Hector shrugged, pocketing his returns. He’d sleep better not having the strange little object on his person, anyway.


“One more thing,” Hector said. “You ever seen a lady around here by the name of Zelda?”


The woman’s eyes narrowed. “What’s it to you?”


Hector stopped, glancing at her curiously. “So you do know her.”


“Haven’t seen her much lately.” she said. “Why’re you looking for her?”


“Some unfinished business,” Hector said cautiously, and whistled. “Come on, girls.”


Heidi shifted her attention from the needle in the jar and followed as Hector led away into the market. He stopped in at several food vendors, digging into a hot meal of roasted chicken and vegetables, sharing with the dogs. It tasted like salvation. Rations and supplies were quickly replenished, everything he’d need for the road ahead.


He made his way out of the market, beginning to let the weight fall on his shoulders again. Zelda was still gone, and the trail he’d left off was bound for a strange part of the forest. At least now he could approach the problem on a full stomach. The dogs seemed apprehensive as he approached his cycle, and a rustle in the bushes caught his attention.


“Hello?” he called. “Come out slowly.”


He went for the barbed dredging line in his bag, and something blunt collided with his back. Jackie was barking then as he went down on one knee, the wind knocked out of his lungs. Behind him, he noticed the old shopkeeper, and Heidi sat staring at the needle dangling from her hand. She carried a curved silver blade in the other. Suddenly the girl who had been keeping the Alder store was at his side then, pressing a knife against his throat.


“We’re the friends of Zelda,” she hissed. “And you’re going to tell us everything you know.”



Interlude 1 - Black Needles

Dreamers, if you reside at the edge of the Northern Hallowoods, you have likely experienced changes in your environment over the last several years. You were among the first to witness the awakening of the trees, their needles changing from green into black into the colors beyond black. You have watched the sky fill with fire that shrouds the stars. You have watched the horizons stretch and warp, filled with distant mountains that you have never seen before, oceans of drifting ice that you do not know.


I want to remind you not to be afraid. Life is nothing if not full of change. You begin your journeys in the sun, and although the world itself is fading into night, you do not need to fear these new horizons. The change is not only around you, but in your heart and your thoughts, in your eyes and your bones. You have changed just as much as these darkening woods. They watch you with just as much curiosity and wonder and pride as you watch them. The world changes, and you change with it, and it is neither better nor worse—it is only, ever so gradually, new.


We go now to another new person.



Story 2 - A Whole Person

Diggory had heard of peace, but had never truly understood it until now. Their body was relaxed, and the air was still in a way that Diggory had not experienced. In the Hallowoods, every molecule vibrated with hunger, and the air was filled with song—frogs and thrushes rising to claim a world that belonged only to them. But here, on this beach, there was only the sound of gentle waves breaking against the shore. Diggory sat, and watched the midnight water.


“It’s beautiful, in a way,” a voice said, and Diggory found that a small brown woman was sitting next to them. She wore a bindi dot, and her clothes were shades of orange and pink like the sunrise. Her eyes were glazed over, pale whites watching the waves. “The end always is.”


“I know you, don’t I?” Diggory said. The woman smiled with Diggory’s lips.


“You know me very well,” she replied. “You are all of me, although I’m not all of you.”


Diggory realized there were more people here, sitting by a beached boat in the distance. The beach was not white sand, they realized, but bones, and the waves that lapped against the shore were as black as Diggory’s jacket.


“Yes, those are the others,” the woman said, as if intercepting Diggory’s thoughts, “but I thought it would be easiest to meet me first. I’m Riz.”


“My name is Diggory Graves.”


“Well, Diggory, we have some time. What would you like to know?”


“Am I dead?”


“You’ve always been dead, dear. But you mean, are you done for good? I don’t think that’s set in stone. I think this place would be gone if you were.”


“I want to know more about you,” Diggory said. “About all of you. I am made of so many pieces that don’t fit together. I need to understand who I was, what I am supposed to do. How I can get Percy back.”


“Diggory,” Riz said, shifting her gaze from the dark ocean. “You are made of parts of us, it is true. But you are not just a continuation of us. You are someone entirely new. Someone beautiful. And you’re going to live a life that is all your own, do you understand?”


Diggory looked away, hair falling into their face. “I think so.”


“I can tell you about us,” Riz said. “But I never want you to think that we are all you are—you are a whole person. And if you go out there walking again—-whatever you feel, whatever you think—know that it all belongs to you.”


“How did you die?” Diggory asked quietly. Riz laughed.


“I died trying to fix things,” she said. “All my life, I made solving the world’s problems my business. I led a whole country, Diggory. I saw that a terrible thing was happening, one nobody knew how to stop. I knew the black rains had to be falling for a reason. I learned that there was something in the arctic, something…”

“North,” Diggory said.


“That’s right,” Riz continued. “Something called the Heart was buried there, set free when the ice melted. It was never meant to be used, I think—it corrupts. It changes.”


“What was it?” Diggory asked.


“We never found out—we’d just sent our diver down when we were attacked. It was all over in a moment, Diggory. The world’s become a dangerous place above the arctic circle, and that was almost twenty years ago. I can’t imagine how much it’s changed since. Or how Irene got our bodies back, for that matter.”


“And Irene is…”


“The one who made you,” Riz smiled softly. “She was in touch with it all, somehow. Told us where to go, what to do.”


“And she made people out of people?”


“I was shocked by the terms too—but I was willing to pay the price for a chance to stop all of this.”


“This heart. Is it still north?”


“Yes,” Riz said. “And you probably hear it calling, just like we did. But it doesn’t matter now.”


Diggory blinked in confusion. “What do you mean?”


“The world is over, Diggory,” Riz said, gazing across the beach with her dead white eyes. “I fought as hard as I could, and I got close. But it’s over. The heart’s been bleeding into the world for decades now. There are so many places like the Hallowoods, so many things are changing. I’m not sure stopping the heart at this point would do anything. I don’t want you throwing away your chance at life when you could still be happy.”


Rizwana stood up. “Go live your life, Diggory Graves. Enjoy it. You’ve been given a gift in a second chance—I don’t want to see you lose it for the same reason.”


Diggory watched as she walked away, and looked to the shore. Somewhere deep beneath the inky waves, the sound of a beating heart shook the water.



Marketing - Family Doctor


Velma Burfield:

Hello, and thank you for being a member of Botco’s happy dreaming family. This is a public health announcement. I’m your family doctor, Velma Burfield.


We here at Botco prioritize your comfort, and have designed your Dreaming Box experience to be as painless and easy to enjoy as possible. Living in the Prime Dream may feel effortless, but the truth is you are also brave and courageous. Living without use of your physical body and stepping into a realm of the mind alone is a frontier that you are boldly helping us to explore. You’re doing what’s best for you, for the environment, and for the world.


However, even though it’s sleeping, your body does have physical needs, and as we approach your yearly health update, you may feel brief discomfort beyond what you are used to. Our anaesthetics should keep you from even noticing, but, if you feel any slight pinching sensations, there is no need to wake up. Just continue with your dreaming experience.


It will be over quickly, and you will be safe and sound until next year. If you experience any drastic side effects, such as unusually disturbing or out-of-place elements in your dreamscape, any painful convulsions or spasms, or adverse reactions of any kind, please find a Botulus Industries contact terminal so that we can assist you.


If you happen to wake up during this procedure, please do not discuss what you see with other dreamers, as this imagery can be frightening. Please do not attempt to leave your Dreaming Pod during your yearly health update, as your body would require extensive care and therapeutic preparation before you would be fully able to return to life beyond. The environment outside remains, as always, unfriendly and hostile to human life, and medical experts agree it is to be avoided at all costs.


Thank you, and until next year.



Story 2, Continued - A Whole Person

There are few things that I am afraid of, dreamers, and most of them you could never understand. Some of my greatest fears have already come to pass, and yet they are gone, and I am still here, reigning in the silence. Needles do make me uncomfortable, but this is because I am largely made of eyes.We return now to Diggory Graves.


Diggory found themself staring not at a white beach, but at a plank of wood, like other beams next to it, forming a set of rafters. Clouds rolled by lazily through a little skylight.


Diggory sat up, and watched the man piece together their forearm with a small silver needle, twisting black thread through their skin.


“You put me back together?” Diggory questioned.


“Wasn’t sure if this would work or not,” Walt said. “There was a needle in your pocket, looked like one of Irene’s. Figured I’d give it a shot.”


“What do you know about Irene Mend?” Diggory asked, watching Walt put a knot in their wrist.


“You know, I told you before we started this whole trip to the Instrumentalist’s house that I’d get you some answers about her. You don’t remember much, do you?”


“Very little, except where her house is—I remember her sewing, much like you are doing.”


“Well, I don’t have a lot to tell you,” Walt said. “I met her once or twice, maybe ten years back. Big house, all alone in the wilderness, seemed very odd. But then again, so was she. Nicest old lady I ever met. But she made projects like you. Animals and people all sewed together. She assured me nobody living was ever part of her projects, just the dead she found. Not that it made her any less terrifying, but it meant I didn’t have a good reason to evict her from our neck of the woods, and she never hurt a fly as far as I know.”


“Why did she make us? Make me?”


“You’d have to take that up with her. She said she was getting up in years, couldn’t do everything around the house anymore. Most folks I know would hire some help, but I guess if you can make yourself some assistants, it’s convenient. She named things pretty straightforward. Her chef was Cookery Potts, groundskeeper was Leyland Blooms. I’d guess if you’re Diggory Graves, well. Maybe she was making end-of-life arrangements.”


“Where did she go?” Diggory flexed their sharp fingers. New lines of stitches ran across the skin, but the seams were tight. “Are you sure she just… passed away?”


“I’m not sure of anything,” Walt said, standing up. “Like I said. Met her once or twice. Went back a couple years later and there was nobody to be seen. I figured she’d moved or moved on, until I went poking around the Instrumentalist’s property. He’s got all her creations—the people like you—standing guard around his mansion. I don’t know what that means for old Irene.”


The mention brought memories rushing back to Diggory, a deep sense of emptiness consuming the inside of their chest.


“The Instrumentalist—he got away. Did you find him? Where is Percy? And Riot?”


“He tore you up real bad, eh?”


“This wasn’t him. He has help from the one in the blue cape—the one that kidnapped Riot before. They hate me. I do not understand why.”


“Guess that explains the odd weather,” Walt mused. “I have no idea how, but Riot managed to escape. Big Mikey seems to have run into her out in the woods, brought her in a day ago, not in a bag this time. So she’s okay. But I worry about your Percy. Percy is the Instrumentalist’s son, do I have that down right?”

“I need to go find him,” Diggory realized, trying to move out of bed.


“Easy there now,” Walt said, holding his hands up. “Stretch. Make sure those seams are good, I’m not a steady hand like Irene, or even Violet. I want to help you, Diggory. But we’re up against worse than we thought. That blue-haired kid tore you to shreds last time you met. What makes you think he won’t just do it again?”


Diggory could not think of a response.


“Right. Now, I’m going with you. My job is not done, which is to get Mr. Reed out of this forest so we can all sleep a little better. I need you, Diggory. We gotta do this together, and with a plan.”


“Alright,” Diggory said, swinging their legs off the bed.


“Your clothes, were, ah, pretty tattered to be honest. Violet’s patching up your jacket, I figured it has sentimental value. There’s some clothes the good folks at the Scoutpost could spare in the trunk, take your pick, see if there’s anything your size. I’ll be outside. Time for a coffee,” Walt said, and limped out of the room.


Diggory looked at their own face in the corner mirror—the new lines were surprising, but in some sense, they didn’t mind. They touched the new seam across their nose with a black talon, and chose an outfit—the first time, they realized, they had ever done so. The bright colors were shocking against their blackened skin, and they smiled. The sleeveless shirt showed off all the little pieces of art beneath their skin. They turned to the door, fixed their hair, and went out to face the morning.


Not pieces anymore, they thought.


A whole person—and yet, they could not help but feel that Walt had left something out, missed a piece that was supposed to dwell beneath their ribcage. They were empty inside. Percy was gone, and the hunger had returned.



Interlude 2 - Disparate Pieces

It is an unfortunate truth of our time in this universe that we do not escape it unscathed. We are pierced by troubles and bound together by threads of sorrow. Our souls are not singularities, but mosaics—a patchwork of all that you were and you are and you will be.


You are made of a little carbon and a lot of memories. You are music that was given to you by someone you have lost. You are a recipe that was passed down from a grandparent, you are a way of looking at life that a dead philosopher once explained. For all the pieces that make you who you are, you are beautiful. The fragments make a complete work of art, a piece of you lives on in every other life that yours has touched. It is always a relief when we meet others who love all our disparate pieces.


We go now to one who is being pierced once again.



Story 3 - Always Too Soft

Percy hid in the darkness, as small as he could possibly be. He could feel his father’s heart beating inside of the vest pocket, and he suffocated with fear. He tried not to listen, not to think. You are not alone anymore, he tried to tell himself. There are other people now. Diggory cares about you. Diggory would not leave you here. They promised they would not.


But with every passing moment, Percy’s newfound courage drained away, because the sound in the air was his father’s booming voice, and he had hoped for so many years that he had heard it for the last time. Then, he was carried into the depths of the house, into a hole in the earth, and placed on a table. In the dark place there was only the piano key, and Percy, and the singular thread of light that tied them together. For the first time since the burning of the piano, Percy thought about twisting the spectral wire around his finger and breaking it, drifting upwards into night, escaping forever.


Once, he would have done it in a heartbeat, but now he could not bring himself to, not yet. What if Diggory came back? He would hold on a little longer.


His father’s voice returned a time later.


“Do not think I have forgotten about you,” he muttered, and Percy trembled. “Do you know how many hours I spent on that piano? How much craftsmanship went into each panel? That is to say nothing of the work on the bones.”


A woman in the room was groaning, and there were voices whispering—others like Percy. There were so many more than when Percy had left.


“Bone is not an easy material for fine work. Sanding and polish is required, and there is not enough readily available in a human body for a flat surface like a piano key. So many little pieces, carved to a perfect fit. You never appreciated these things.”


“Let me go,” Percy whispered in the darkness. “Please, let me go.”


“Go where?” Solomon laughed, organizing the tools on his desk. “You are home. You are returned, and all is well. You will be reprimanded for destroying my property, but I can yet make a new instrument for you.”

Percy froze. He had tasted so much freedom over the last months. He could not imagine going back.


“I don’t want to, dad. There is nothing worse than being stuck in one of your instruments. I hate it. Please don’t make me.”


The faces in the shadow watched from the walls. The basement was a crypt, a terrible and holy place.


“If you had been obedient, you would still be alive. You brought this on yourself, and as long as your spirit dwells on earth, it must be safely anchored. You cannot learn the ways of the lord without learning control.”


“I hate you,” Percy said, giving up. “I hate you.”


He could see his father’s eyes flashing green in the shadow.


“Now I haven’t heard that in a long time. I’ll admit, I was shocked when I saw what your mother did to your face—but I did appreciate having a quiet house. Now, you will speak respectfully to me, and I will not replace those stitches. That is my kindness to you, though I have always been too soft.”


He left the key on the table and walked away, climbing the basement stairs towards the light. When the door shut, Percy curled up under the desk and cried, silently.


It was minutes or hours before he realized he was not alone—in the shadow, a pair of eyes were watching. A living woman.


“Are you a little boy?” an old woman croaked. “It’s okay, you don’t need to cry.”


Percy could not stop the tears, crackling white from his eyes.


“Your grandma Zelda’s right here now,” she whispered. “She’s going to cheer you up.”


“I don’t think anyone can,” Percy sobbed.


“It can’t be that bad,” she replied. Percy peaked at her. Her wrists were bound to a pipe with familiar wire.


“He’s going to put me back,” Percy whispered. “In an instrument.”


“Is that old buzzard back?” Zelda said in surprise. “I was supposed to get out of here. I must have fallen asleep. Oh no.”


“I’m sorry,” Percy shuddered.


“Oh hush,” Zelda said. “Old Zelda doesn’t give up easy. I didn’t come all this way to be some idiot’s class project.”


Percy was forced to smile. “He’s not an idiot.”


“Sure he is. I got a hand free. He hasn’t noticed.” Zelda waved with one hand briefly. “I’m gonna get us out of here, little boy. You wait and see. Right after supper. Go and play now.”


Percy rose in curiosity, drifting towards Zelda. She wasn’t doing well, but one hand free was something. Percy looked at his fingers, and tried to force them to light, to burn the way they had in the woods. A spark of light appeared at his fingertips. He had to do more, to make it work, but it was worth a shot.


“Yeah,” Percy said. “We’ll get you out of here.”



Outro - Needles

Needles. They are, like humans, unpleasant tools of creation. I like to remind you about your ephemeral qualities, about the quickness of your life in the grand scheme, but it is worth saying that—however small the stitches—you have altered this universe.


I like to think the threads of your little lives have come together in a tapestry, that the sutures in your souls were worth the suffering. I may be the one hanging this piece of needlework on my wall for all to see, displaying it like a curator of dream across the cosmos, but it is you, dreamer, who did the work. Your hand laid these stitches down, and they will remain as your threads are replaced with other colors, and the tapestry will continue until the end of your time.


Until the end of your thread, dreamers, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, embroidering the seams and waiting for your return to the Hallowoods.



The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Once Shut' 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!