A note: This story was based on a nightmare, and thus might not be to your specific taste. It was also written in less than a day–but I hope you enjoy it, reader!
Francis poured a cup of the hot toddy she had prepared, offering it to her new husband beside her. He raised a hand in silent dismissal. Secretly gleeful, she raised it to her lips, when she caught sight of telltale bobbing lights through the window. She pressed the cup to her cheek, the warmth a slight comfort when whimblings wandered so nearby.
“What are we to do about those?” she asked, turning to a settler who slouched against a cabinet.
“Oh, just don’t look them in the eye. They grow livid if we shutter the windows, though, so we must live with them peeping in. No harm done if we abide by those rules,” the settler replied, her words softly flowing, but individually sharp.
“Ah,” Francis replied, “I suppose there’s nothing else to be done about them? We haven’t any whimblings in the valley.”
The settler gnawed at the dry skin on her lips while peering at Francis through half-shut eyes.
“I suppose you’ve heard of Shibboleth, then?”
Francis nodded, sipping from her cup, her eyes now drawn to the floor. She could hardly bear to not meet the eyes that would stare at them at night, it settled uneasily in her stomach. She wished she could announce a hunt of those whimblings, but, of course, such a motion never made headway in this dodgy mountain settlement.
“You only have the flooding from Shibboleth, we must face Shibboleth in the flesh.”
“Seems the valley fares too easy compared to here,” Francis offered.
The settler scoffed, prying the cup from Francis’s hand. She sniffed the cup’s contents, wrinkled her nose, and returned it.
“Pfah, why'd you drink that gritty muck? And, yes, but you pay with your taste in food and drink, all the bogs must have muddled your tongues and stomachs.”
“Pardon, but,” Francis hesitated as the settler’s eyes fixed upon her, “What does 'Shibboleth in the flesh' mean?”
“Shibboleth comes in four years, you should live ‘til then. You'll know well enough after. We have survived before, and shall survive again, but now is not the time for discussing calamity.”
Francis nodded, setting her cup on an unclaimed table near her.
She wished they had discussed Shibboleth in the flesh more over the subsequent four years. She now lay by her husband, shivering as he hoarded his body heat in flannel pajamas. His family’s illustrious history meant doggerel to her now. If he was a jackanape, she was bored and miserable.
She imagined Shibboleth would visit, curse him, and do naught else but sprout monkey ears on him to match his spirit, his rough imitation of a man. She slipped from underneath the pointlessly thin blankets, crawling on her hands and knees to avoid someone seeing her through the waist-high screens and windows to the outside.
She wished his settlement preferred privacy to spacious, often overlapping, community. Each person’s designated area was delineated by their possessions in an immense room of their single building. Some evenings, she still caught sight of whimblings peering through the windows the settlement refused to cover. She had proposed a plan to hunt the whimblings, which had been swiftly rejected, and she had drifted into the settlement’s monotony. The valley’s bogs in their peat seemed rich compared to the verdant, but droll, aspirations of this mountain.
Francis thought, as she drew out a polished silver mirror from a chest of drawers, how she must remember to remind the others to harvest the last of the ripe barley from the terraced fields. While a peculiar lull of indifference gripped all the settlers, her husband fell prey to it even further.
He’d never sown a seed, never heaved a shovel of manure, never crumbled the manure into fertilizer, or swatted bugs from the crops’ leaves. He served no purpose but to rearrange peoples’ possessions when they overstepped their unspoken boundaries. He swept on occasion, and she would compliment him profusely on these frabjous days, hoping it would motivate him to work more often.
But no, like the mountain, he waited languidly for Shibboleth’s return. He polished a broad sword which stood taller than him. Whenever she would return from the fields, the colour of the earth and manure seeped into her skin, he would beam at her and say:
“’Tis the very sword my father and his father and his father before used to injure Shibboleth, driving away for the next score years!”
And she would answer,
“Will you wield it, then?”
And he would frown, polish away a smudge, and whisper,
“I never have the time to practice.”
She would nod, wash her hands of filth, and fantasize about Shibboleth saving her from this drudgery. No-one spoke more than vaguely of this Shibboleth, often referring to—it?—as a holiday, and a person, and a force of nature, and, sometimes, a low deity. No direct questions revealed direct answers, and frequent comments about the next descendent dogged her. So, Francis lived on, irked and frustrated in every aspect.
But, in the whimbling-blinking night, Francis caught a moonbeam to peer at her face in the mirror. Her hooked nose had been a particularly strong point in favour of her marriage, and she ran a finger over its curve. You brought me into this, she thought, But I shall drag you out of it, dear nose. She slipped the mirror back into its drawer, leaning back against the wall beneath a window.
A green horizon gaped about the earth, the sparse stars swallowed in it. Gertie rose first of the settlers and, noticing Francis, walked to her. She knelt by the matriarch-by-marriage and patted her shoulder.
“First Shibboleth, eh? I suppose you were too young for the last one. In the valley, though, so you wouldn’t have witnessed the truth of Shibboleth. Your husband must show his mettle today, no?”
Francis nodded, gritting her front teeth together. The broad sword rested on a rack nearby. She watched it when her husband wasn’t polishing it, expectant, memorizing its details. She hadn’t dared touch it, though.
“I shall make hot toddy for you all to celebrate,” she laughed softly, “I know how well you love it.”
Gertie grinned, her cheeks rising high enough to obscure her lower eyelids.
“I know you kid, but I have gotten a taste for it. Speaking of, the last of the barley must be brought in before Shibboleth arrives.”
Francis sighed in relief, resting an arm about Gertie’s shoulders.
“I’m overjoyed someone remembered besides me, say,” she whispered, and Gertie shuffled closer, “I might even force him into the fields today.”
Gertie’s smile withered, and she dipped her head.
“Oh, he won’t, not today, not any day.”
Frustration mounted in Francis’s chest such that she coughed to suppress a mounting burning sensation. She squeezed one of Gertie’s shoulders as she scratched at her chin.
“What a damn poor husband he is, then. But tell me, why not? Is he that insufferably lazy?”
Gertie slipped out from Francis’s grip, settling back onto her behind. Her face was tilted away from Francis, her expression shaded.
“I’ll only say yes for now. I can tell more after Shibboleth, when you won’t be so sick of him. He’ll seem a better man in your eyes then, and frankly, in all of ours. He is a jackanape, if you haven’t noticed.”
Francis bit back a scoffing laugh, for the room stirred with waking settlers.
As they breakfasted, a stormfront swelled lasciviously, encircling the settlement. Francis pondered her porridge, pressing her fingertips to her sternum at a slight misstep of her heartrate.
“How long should Shibboleth last this time?” her husband asked hoarsely.
“Not much longer than a day,” Cymbeline answered, drawing in her lips slightly to bite chapped flecks of skin off, “But beware, for—”
“A day can overhaul a lifetime,” Adri ended, “Bitter day, but I hope to see another one of these.”
“Might as well harvest the rest of the barley,” Francis tossed in, “No matter Shibboleth, we will need the grain. No point in survival without a means to continue, I say.”
“Yes!” Gertie emphasized through a mash of partially chewed barley bread.
Francis’s husband swung a weary gaze to his wife, his porridge spoon dripping onto the table.
“Bitter work ill fits a bitter day, I’d say. What we have brought in should suffice, and we know not when Shibboleth will arrive.”
The rest of the settlers laughed, and one catapulted a spoonful of watery oats at him. He blocked the porridge with a hand, but he resorted to licking it from his arm as it dripped under his sleeve. Francis’s eyes widened as she averted her face. She set her jaw, gritting her back teeth until her anger subsided. The laughter dissipated as the day’s hero reminded them of his true nature.
“We shall know very well when Shibboleth arrives,” Cymbeline refuted, “The silence is unmistakable.”
Vincent, at a far corner of the table, swept his bowl aside and buried his face in his arms. Hiram patted his shoulder, but Francis spied a sibling frustration to hers in his face. Breakfast carried on in fitful conversation. Eventually, the porridge was consumed, the pots and bowls polished, and barrels set out to catch rain.
The rain started gently, whisping down in a snowflake manner. As the morning passed, however, the rain strengthened to an unusual force. Francis’s husband hovered by the broad sword. She caught him running his finger along the edge, which earned him a cut that he pressed to his mouth. He glimpsed her watching, and he motioned for her to join him.
“When Shibboleth arrives, I haven’t the strength to lift this,” he murmured directly into her ear, at which she recoiled.
“Please do not spit in my ear,” she whispered back, “And why ever not? Is it because you haven’t spent a mite of your days preparing?”
“I have prepared,” he answered, giving her a significant look.
He strutted away. Fancying himself dripping with confidence and importance, she thought, What an idiot.
Despite the deluge, a silence swept across the building and the outside. Francis could see the sharp myriad raindrops—each one could pierce an inch through flesh—spearing the blades of grass, swamping the earth. But yet, there was the silence.
“The Eye, ‘tis Shibboleth!” Vincent wailed.