Content warning: allusions to domestic abuse
The screeches we heard at night were pumas, barn owls, and El Sibador. They came when
the white men came.
My mamá spoke of the Cihuateteo, luring us westward when we did not come home
before the sun set. Yamilex scared me with tales of La Llorona when I would stray too close to
the waters of the river in the basin, but I know she was more concerned with the Sánchez
Navarro men seeing me and becoming too friendly.
I chose to become too friendly with one of them before she could catch me, and we were
married in the summer of 1935, when I was seventeen years old. He was twenty-four, and a
On the night before my wedding, a white man's wedding, my cousin Citlali told me I
shouldn't have done it. Yamilex scolded her with her eyes, thinking I wasn't watching, but I
already knew that neither of them wanted me to marry this man. But I loved him, and I still love
him, in a way. They were older and thought they knew better. It wasn't until I had my own
daughters that I understood how they felt.
Weeks before the wedding day, my mamá spoke in the old language about something I
could only understand as sadness and disappointment. Then she told me she was happy, and that
my papá would have been happy and given my husband great bride gifts. We had nothing to give
now, the four of us women, but he wanted me anyway, and I moved with him across the basin to
a real house. He built it himself after we met, with the Sánchez Navarro money, and it had four
bedrooms. For us and our three sons, he told me, and I beamed back at him as he carried me to
the wedding bed.
I don't want to talk about the rest, because the clearest part I remember is the whistling I
heard long after he'd fallen asleep. Memories of El Sibador flooded my mind and I shivered, my
body that of a girl again. It blew through the valley, high and low notes alternating like a song.
No birds sing so mournfully that late at night, and I knew it was El Sibador. Sometimes the
whistles were low and quiet, like a man on a walk, but sometimes they were more like the cries
of despair of a dying prey animal. I could still tell who the sounds belonged to.
He sounded the same as he had in my childhood, all the times I'd heard him when I had to
walk from the cow fields back home in the darkness, long after Citlali and Yamilex had left me,
claiming tiredness. I was afraid then, and I was afraid now, and this did not stop until my
husband awoke the next morning and the sounds ceased. I had not slept, and I cleaned the sheets
while he went out into the kitchen.
Some years later, I was a mother of three, all daughters. My husband made the twins
share a room. They looked like me, but the oldest, he swore, looked just like his mother. I never
met her, but I saw pictures. Indeed my daughter had red hair like she did, but much darker
against her olive skin, speckled with dark brown freckles. No matter what they looked like, he
did love them, even if they were girls.
I remember their births very well. El Sibador was loud during both, but no one else heard
him, at least my husband did not. (He insisted on being in the room. The women, especially my
mamá, wanted him to wait in the hall, but he refused.) I don't know what Yamilex was thinking
when she held my hand, her eyes on the white doctor at the foot of the bed. Mamá squeezed my
arm, her other hand holding my chin so that I could look her in the eye. She told me so long as I
looked her in the eye, the pain would be less because she would take some of it away. I screamed
in her face all the while, and I named the firstborn after her.
It was fitting, my husband said years later, that she receive my mother's name and his
mother's face. The twins I gave the names of saints. My mamá held my hand that time, too, and
Yamilex was at the foot of the bed now. She was studying women's medicine in Mexico City.
When my girls were five and seven, my cousin Citlali married a Mexico City man
Yamilex introduced her to. He was wealthy enough that they moved to Texas, to a ranch in the
desert. They made him a citizen and then they shipped him away, and my cousin came to my
home a widow of the war.
My husband was gone for a few days in the city, so my cousin shared my bed. We were
silent, staring at the ceiling as the song of El Sibador floated through the open windows. I was
still afraid. Citlali was too, gripping my hand. But so many years had passed; we knew him well.
We did not speak about it the next morning when my husband came home. I mentioned it to him
a few times before, but he didn't know what I was going on about. We never had much to talk
about those days unless it was about the girls or money, which we had enough of but would still
make him angry if I spent too much.
Citlali moved back to live with my mamá some months later so she could take care of
her. My girls were sad when she left, so I sat them at my feet in the front room and told them
stories. The fireplace was crackling, since winter nights in the basin were so very cold, and it
covered up the sounds of my husband's snores down the hallway.
I told them about a night where Yamilex, Citlali, and I were laying on the floor of the
cabin, the room where we slept each night. There were only two beds, and Mamá slept in one in
the cabin's other room. The second was large enough for all three of us to sleep side by side. It
was too hot to sleep close together, so we stayed awake, throwing blankets to the floor and
opening the windows.
We didn't have a clock, but we all agreed that the whistling started at one in the morning.
Maybe it had started earlier but we were too busy giggling to notice; still, when we did, we were
afraid. It sounded like a man, but not human. We sat in silence for a few minutes until Citlali
whispered El Sibador. Yamilex gasped and slapped her wherever it landed in the darkness, and
Citlali began to cry until I clamped my hand over her mouth. I was afraid he would hear us and
Mamá told us stories about El Sibador since we could sit still. There were other stories,
too, but they were from our culture, ghosts and haunts and Earth's creatures who were around
long before humans. El Sibador was different, because when the white man came, he brought
him along, even if he did not know it. Mamá was told these stories by her own mamá, and she by
hers, and so on. Before, a girl could walk alone at night, or with her friends, and not be afraid.
The only sounds at night were those of the frogs and the lizards and the insects.
But then many things happened, many bad things, and it was no longer safe. There were
men and other creatures, things from their countries that didn't like us and would hurt us. It was
women and girls they were after, she said, and if you heard the song of El Sibador, you should
run or hide.
I told my daughters all of this. I didn't think my girls had ever heard El Sibador
themselves until my eldest spoke up.
She said, in her childish way, that she heard whistling at night when she could not sleep,
and sometimes it sounded as though it was in the room with her. She would bury herself beneath
the covers and keep her eyes open, so she could watch for the shadows, but none ever came. The
twins began nodding frantically and stumbling over their words and each other, insisting they
had heard it too and actually seen something beneath their beds. I smiled and told them it was
only the wind through the cracks in the house. It was what my husband would have said; Mamá
would have told me to pray and cross myself.
Several years later, years that matter to me only in the marked heights of my children on
the wooden doorframe, Mamá passed away. We gave her a traditional funeral, like she wanted,
and Yamilex came home with me after. She was a woman doctor now for the villagers in the
basin. My husband had agreed to let her move in, but only days passed before the fighting
became almost constant.
I could ignore it, at first, while I cooked dinner on the new electric stove and made sure
the girls were doing their homework at the table. Yamilex told me she didn't want to yell in front
of the children, but that promise did not last long. They screamed about everything, from how he
treated me to the money he spent—I don't know how she knew—to the way he looked at other
women. I never noticed him looking at any other women, but maybe my sister was right. She
was always smarter than me. She had no husband.
I heard a sudden noise in the front room as the shouting stopped, and Yamilex swore in
Spanish and then there was another loud noise. When I peeked around the archway, my
husband's fist was raised and Yamilex was against the couch's cushions, struggling to stand
I grabbed a pan. It was some flimsy piece of a set his mother had sent us after our
marriage, all the way from Ohio. I never used it. It dented near in half when it hit the back of his
He stumbled forward and caught one of the living chairs, and spit flew from his mouth
when he turned back to me. His face was red, as red as only a white man's can be, and he began
shouting at me, calling me names I had never even heard before.
My oldest girl was a woman now, fittingly coming into her own after her namesake had
passed. She stepped between me and her father and snapped something I didn't hear, couldn't
hear because my ears were ringing. Or perhaps I heard whistling, or crying. I still can't
When my husband left, storming away from our daughter whom he loved and would not
harm, I did hear whistling. I think Yamilex did too, and all of my children, but no one said a
word. One of the twins, the sensitive one, cried and yelled for her daddy, but he only kissed her
head and said he would be back.
The whistling stopped later that night, and I never saw my husband again. I never heard
El Sibador again. The children cried and grieved in their own ways; I assured them the best I
could. Yamilex's presence helped, and eventually I decided to lie and tell them they found
Daddy's body in a ravine in the basin, a dried up river. They cried for days, and we held a
ceremony in our backyard. Yamilex did not like this lie, but they were my children. I admit I
never knew much of who he was and who he was not, but I knew he had loved his children.
My eldest became a woman doctor like her aunt, and the twins became good women. One
married the son of a friend of Yamilex and the other decided to move to America, to New York
City; Citlali, who had since remarried and had her own large brood of children, helped her in the
citizenship process. She won a writing contest which gave her American money and that helped,
When I asked later, when both sets of children were long grown with children of their
own and Yamilex was nearing retirement, the women confided that they never heard El Sibador
again, either. When I asked my oldest daughter, she could hardly remember ever hearing
whistling. Sometimes the tune comes to mind and I sing it to my grandchildren, and I tell them it
was a song I heard in my youth, having never learned the lyrics.
Danica Whelan (she/her) is a history student from Colorado who mostly writes historical fiction and horror. This is her first publication. Find her @danywhelan.