-Mom never told me scary stories.
She told me stories about everything else: trips to the beach in the family van, her brothers’ friends always at the house, sitting at the table in shifts, eating, talking, and stinking like pirates, the bags and baskets bursting with oranges, onions, tomatoes, shrimp, lemons, eggs, rice, crabs, fish, mangos, live chickens, which Grandpa brought home to feed the ravenous pack of hounds that were his offspring. She told me everything, down to the last detail. The tastes, smells, textures of her childhood, the first business she started when she was just a teenager, the stand she set up to sell bruised bananas that couldn’t be sold for export. She never shut up about that, maybe because it was her first and last paying job, the first and last time that money passed through her hands. After that it was different: it was always Dad’s. Money you’ve earned yourself has a different weight; it feels crisper, you pull it from your purse with a flourish and spread it across the counter, faceup, patting it like the head of a well-behaved child.
I know how she made a table out of banana crates painted red and how she arranged the bunches of bananas tied with colorful ribbon—like a little girl’s hair. I know she sometimes swapped bananas for things: songbooks, records, fashion magazines, mascara, a music box she kept the rest of her life. I know she loved being that child entrepreneur. I know that she used the money to buy chocolate, perfume. I know that her brothers stole her chocolate and ate it and that they sprayed her perfume on themselves to make their girlfriends jealous. I know that Mom’s mom would hit her but not her brothers. I know that one time on the banana plantation they cut down some trees and out fell an orphaned baby monkey like a ripe fruit and Mom’s dad brought him home and raised him like another child, eating, playing, and sleeping alongside them, until he became a teenage monkey and started masturbating in front of guests. They released him back into the trees, but the next day they found him dead in a hammock, like a tiny person taking a nap.
I know that when Mom met Dad she was dressed up like a soldier, with tall boots and tasseled hat, because she’d marched in a parade. I know that when Mom was little, her mom wasn’t watching a gigantic pot of milk on the stove and that Mom was playing, exploring, and gallons and gallons of boiling milk spilled on her, her little dress stuck to her body, fused with her skin, and that, not knowing what to do, Mom’s mom pulled the dress off her and with it ripped off the tender flesh of her little chest and that the pain was so bad, so bad, and she was so panicked at seeing her destroyed chest that she tried to jump out the window into a little stream that ran beside the house and that, to stop her, her mom grabbed her by her raw chest and she fainted from the pain. I know that the scars, that old lady’s skin on a young woman, were something she was ashamed of her entire life. I know that Mom’s mom set fire to the rats’ nests and then blocked them off with rocks and that Mom, at night, would go around trying to cure the charred rats with menthol.
Mom told these and many, many more stories, but never a scary story. I was obsessed with scary stories because I knew they existed, that they had to. Dad had always lived in the city and some of the stories he told me would come into my head, without warning, at night when I went to sleep. One was about his friend Jo, who died in an accident, and that certain nights, especially when there was a full moon, Jo would come to his window and invite him out to play. The other was a night of strange sounds, like something with hooves, coming from his room. He went upstairs and found dark stains and burn marks on the wood floor, now scratched up, with sawdust everywhere.
I knew Mom, who had spent so much time in the country at her grandma’s house, must have some even better stories. Or similar. Or worse. But some kind of scary story. I believed every word of Dad’s stories so I was certain that evil existed and, since it existed, Mom had to have encountered it.
Finally she told her story one terrible night, the night my puppy died.
The neighbors had abandoned a little puppy without food or water and, after a few days hearing her yelp and feeding her bread soaked in milk that she devoured, Dad decided to go over and rescue her. It was crazy because my parents always said I couldn’t have a dog, then all of a sudden the cutest little puppy in the world showed up at our house looking like a stuffed animal with two eyes like black marbles. The dog could fit entirely in the palm of Dad’s hand, and she fell asleep there after licking his fingers. It was so exciting to have a pet and also to see my dad so animated, like he finally belonged to me and my mom and not to the streets, to other people.
That night we went to have dinner at my grandparents’ and, of course, I took the little dog and, of course, I tied a red bow around her neck. I put a bowl of water down for her and there she went, wagging her tiny tail, wearing that bow bigger than she was. A little while later we saw her lying on her back, her tongue hanging out, grunting and with yellow foam coming out of her mouth. Dad’s mom had put out rat poison all over the kitchen and the puppy ate some. That’s what did it. She suffered for a few seconds, then died right in front of my eyes, which Mom tried in vain to cover: her lips pulled open to show her tiny teeth, the red ribbon like a hemorrhage on the floor, her little legs stiff. We’d saved her from her suffering next door only to kill her. Yes, my family had killed her. I’d killed her. That night, in bed, after begging me to stop crying, saying that I was going to make her cry, Mom started to tell me her scary story.
I’ll never know why she chose that particular moment to tell me about the Whistler. It would’ve been the perfect opportunity to tell me about bright colors and vacations and ice cream with chocolate sprinkles, but that’s not what she did.
Instead she started talking about a dog she’d had, Wolf, a large, wise mutt who could understand and empathize with human emotions. Wolf was, Mom said, almost a person. She’d had a litter of eight puppies that were adorable creatures but, and this was the horrible part, their cuteness couldn’t save them: they’d died of one illness after another, week after week. Not a single one lived beyond six months old. Wolf went wild with grief, searching for her babies all around the house, whining in the corner where she’d given birth, sniffing under the furniture and placing her enormous snout on Mom’s skirt, staring up with her huge caramel-colored eyes as if asking, Where are they? As if asking for some explanation. Mom, just as sad as Wolf was over the puppies’ deaths, decided to take the dog out to the country, to her grandma’s house, to grieve.
Her grandma’s house was raised on stilts and built out of canes so old they’d turned gray, the kind of rickety shack you see on the side of the highway when you’re going from one nice place to the next. Mom would wax poetic when describing it, like it was the house of a fairytale grandmother, but I knew it was all a fantasy. The places you were happy always seem beautiful in your memory. It was, in reality, a precarious construction typical of the farmworkers in the area: an opulence of rotten wood, insects, and tin, without a toilet, running water, or electricity. Mom’s grandma lived there alone because her husband had taken off with another woman when Mom was a little girl. That’s where Mom turned up one day with the dog who’d lost all her puppies and a suitcase.
Mom’s grandma was a fat, happy, loving old lady who let her get away with anything. Mom would sleep late, go back and forth to the beach all day, bringing back seashells and wildflowers as presents. She ate whenever she pleased and as much as she wanted, she rode the horse bareback, wore shorts or nothing at all, drank beer, smoked menthol cigarettes, and stayed up until late at night listening to her grandma’s hilarious stories or to the soap operas they picked up on the transistor radio.
Her grandma worked a little plot of land where she made her living keeping chickens, some sheep, the horse, and a cow that was as calm, fat, and gullible as she was. Mom had been assigned certain chores: to go buy fish so fresh it was still flipping its tail in the bag on the way home, to milk the cow and skim the cream so that her grandma could whip it into white butter, to feed the animals, collect the still-warm eggs—like they’d been boiled—and help her grandma make delicious, fluffy bread with those same eggs.
It was a self-sufficient world, a world free of fear, a happy world. Which is to say that Mom and her grandma were self-sufficient, free of fear, and happy.
The story, the night my puppy was poisoned, could have, should have, stopped at that point. Mom, her grandma, and her dog living in a joyous and uncomplicated matriarchy, free of constraints, their savage cackles over some joke about farts, sex, or the stupidity of men ringing out through the night black as a wolf’s mouth, unblemished by electricity or neighbors.
Yes, the story should’ve stopped there. But Mom kept going.
One stormy night—the kind that in the country they call a water lashing, because it looks like the rain is lashing the world—Mom’s grandma told her about the Whistler. She’d been trying to warn her for a while, but it was now urgent: a girl from the neighboring town, the sixth girl from the area that year, had disappeared a few days prior— “She was a free spirit, like you, baby,” Mom’s grandma said—and everyone was certain that all of the girls who had disappeared had been whistled at by the Whistler.
Mom curled up beside her grandma and thought about the missing girls; about herself going missing; about a black shadow, muzzled by darkness, creeping through the black night as the people who love you light matches in an attempt to find you until they tire of burning their fingertips with the useless flames and stop searching. Mom’s grandma became serious and begged her if she ever heard a whistle not to peek out the window for anything in the world, explaining that sometimes girls looked out of curiosity, out of boredom, out of loneliness or love.
“Even if you think it’s me, even if it sounds exactly like my whistle, even if you hear my voice telling you to open the window, to hand me something, that I had an accident—don’t look out the window, my little girl. Even if you hear your father’s voice or your mother’s or someone you love, the love of your life, your future children. Even if it orders you to look out the window, if it threatens you, begs you, pleads, promises you all the riches in the world, even if it says your name over and over again. Please, promise me that if you hear the Whistler, you won’t look outside.”
“What happens if you look?” Mom asked.
“Things too terrible to mention to a girl, baby. Promise me that you won’t look ever, promise me.”
“Granny, did you ever hear the Whistler?” She didn’t answer.
So Mom promised and, even though she wanted to ask more questions, she didn’t ask because her grandma had warned her that talking too much about the Whistler might attract him. Mom was terrified for the rest of the night, listening to the frantic heartbeat of her beloved grandmother, who also couldn’t sleep until morning.
A few months later, Mom’s dad went out to the country to get her, saying she had to come home and finish school. Then she could do as she pleased. Mom sobbed, her grandma sobbed, but Mom’s dad gave her the only reason she couldn’t deny.
“Baby girl, come home; you’re the only one in that house who loves me.”
Mom loved her father much more than she loved herself. So she got into the van with her dog, skinny as a greyhound from chasing crabs and seafoam, and left behind that happy wooden house without knowing it would be forever; that her grandmother would fall down dead in the fields a few months later, between the rows of corn; and that her father, out of grief, guilt, and necessity, would hastily sell off the house, land, and animals.
The pain over the death of her grandmother didn’t drive Mom insane because she was in love with a boy, and that boy was everything Mom ever dreamed of. She fantasized obsessively about the day that he would save her from that house, from her mother’s beatings, from her brothers who stole everything from her, inviting over all their friends who had suddenly turned into men who gawked at her. She sobbed over her grandmother day and night but all that crying made her face and eyes swell, and the boy told her that she looked ugly like that and that he liked to see her looking pretty. So she pushed all the pain down into her stomach, malformed, like a little dead fetus. A month later, Mom was riding around in her boyfriend’s sports car. After dancing to slow songs all night, the boy drove Mom home and before leaving he asked her for a kiss. Mom said no, not because she was chaste, but out of fear that her mother would beat her to death. The boy sped off, making his tires squeal and his engine roar.
Before leaving, he called her a prude, cruel, inhuman. Later that night Mom heard a whistle under her window: her boyfriend’s whistle. She wanted to play hard to get, to make him pay for his rudeness, but the boy whistled and whistled, and Mom heard the sounds of a guitar and the boy serenading her with love songs, saying, “I adore you, you are my whole world.” She got up, pushed back the curtains, and leaned out the window to shout that she loved him too, but there was no one there.
That’s what Mom said, and then she went quiet, pensive. After a little while she said again that there was no one there.
“I looked out the window and there was no one there.” She remembered her grandmother’s warning and she waited all the next day, petrified with fear, for someone to come take her, for terrible things to happen, for something. But nothing out of the ordinary happened: she went to school, her mom slapped her for getting home late, a friend taught her how to put on eyeliner, her father found all his shirts and nice pants had been tossed out onto the street and he cried silently, her brothers told her that if they ever found out she’d slept with someone they’d kill her, she made a chocolate cake to sell at the fair.
After a few days, Mom, dressed up like a soldier, met a man from the city at a parade, and she felt that when he spoke to her—she said—it was like a multicolored hummingbird had flown into her mouth.
Mom broke up with her sports-car-driving boyfriend that very night, and a year later, she and Dad were married in an epic wedding where they ate all the shrimp in the world, then bought kitchen appliances, moved to the city, had a little girl, went on vacation to the beach, watched their faces deform until they were unrecognizable to themselves, learned the hidden codes in each other’s silences, called each other by made-up names and coded sounds—Dad three little high-pitched whistles, Mom a hummed note—they loved each other, they hated each other, they loved each other again, they got old, and one day they saved a little puppy from abandonment only to have it die poisoned a few hours later.
Dad stopped loving Mom when I was about fifteen.
We could smell the cheap liquor on his breath despite the hard candies he sucked on, we found a hand mirror and fuchsia lipstick in the car’s glove compartment, a woman called at midnight on New Year’s and he said it was a friend but Dad didn’t have any friends, much less any female friends.
Mom knew, of course she knew, but she never opened her mouth. She shoved her voice back into the darkness of her throat, like someone taken hostage by terrorists. They went out to do the shopping, attended events, he spoke and she answered, and Mom once again let her urge to cry and scream fester in her belly like a little malformed baby. The entire house was filled with toxic fumes, like a garbage dump. Dad sucked up all the available oxygen and we gasped for breaths of the deadly gases that stuck to the walls and lingered in the corners.
Why don’t you shout at him, Mom? Why don’t you tell him to go to hell? Why don’t you poison his food? Why don’t you cut his clothes up with garden shears? Why don’t you tell him you want a divorce, Mom? Why don’t you stop blending in with the sofa, the curtains, the wallpaper, you stupid chameleon, why don’t you step forward from wherever you’re hiding and force him to look you in the face? Why don’t you scream like a madwoman, Mom? I never asked those questions. They stayed together.
Mom put up with it and put up with it, even took care of Dad when cancer left him a sad little weakling who couldn’t get up to go to the bathroom but could still send messages to the other woman and, who knows, maybe even to another son, another daughter. She took care of Dad when his breathing was reduced to a long, slow high-pitched whistle that pierced her eardrums. She took care of him to the last day and cried at his funeral. I didn’t ask the questions that would make Mom ashamed of her whole life, embarrassed for giving him the right side of the bed and the best cuts of turkey—thin slices of light meat. I didn’t want to point out how in exchange she’d destroyed her own self-love and become a miserable prisoner, living in futile silence for fear that he would leave her, like a hand over her nose and mouth, suffocating her. The only sound a whistle.
The story “Whistle” from Human Sacrifices by María Fernanda Ampuero, translated by Frances Riddle. Used with permission of the publisher, Feminist Press.