Author’s Note: El Silbón is a legendary monster from Venezuela who terrorizes his victims by whistling before he attacks. According to legend, he targets drunkards and womanizers. The creature, whose origin takes many forms depending on the version of the story, dates back to the nineteenth century. The victims of el Silbón are never recovered; The creature carries their remains in a sack on its back.
The moon was hidden by a mask of clouds and the air was cold as Ignacio made his way across the cerro. The frigid air stung his face and he pulled his jacket tighter around him. He had spent the evening at the cantina two miles away and was just returning to El Rancho de la Cañada. He’d been lucky enough to get work there as a farm hand after asking around for several days. The few drinks at the cantina today were his way of congratulating himself for his efforts. “Bien hecho, Ignacio. You deserve this.”
In the cantina, he had felt the piercing stares of black eyes around him as the men noticed the stranger among them. It made him uneasy. The unfriendly eyes reminded him of Alma’s eyes, eyes that he hadn’t seen for weeks. “Ya no puedo contigo, Ignacio.” she had said. “You can’t be a father to Rosa like this.” But he wasn’t listening; all he could concentrate on was her face. Suddenly she’d looked different to him. Shadows decorated her face and her eyes were tired, like the eyes of a very old woman. His gaze traveled down to her bare feet, emerging from underneath her nightgown and standing on the cold tile floor. He understood.
He would have stayed in the cantina longer but for all those eyes. Now Ignacio pressed his thumb against the rounded cork of the tequila bottle he now carried. It was difficult to find his way back through the grass and brambles in the blackness of the night. The rainy season was months past now and the cracked earth desiccated, but still the brambles grew without surrender. A gust of cool air penetrated the neck of Ignacio’s cotton shirt and made him shiver. When the sun set, the heat went with it.
Suddenly, from somewhere nearby, he heard a low, undulating whistle. It carried an unfamiliar tune. He scanned his surroundings but couldn’t make out more than the outline of a web of shrubs. The whistling was softer now. It seemed to slip away, almost out of earshot, tantalizing. The cerro was vast and there wasn’t a house around for miles. The idea of another drunk field hand stumbling back to his bunk through the bushes made Ignacio stifle a giggle.
He put his left hand into his pocket and rubbed the frayed edge of a ribbon with his thumb, slowly winding it around his finger tip. The air felt colder yet and he shivered. The ribbon was worn from his recurring habit. He remembered its red fabric braided into Rosa’s dark hair. He had sometimes watched her from behind as she walked to school; bouncing with each determined step she took. She would start down the dirt road to the schoolhouse and wouldn’t look back, braids bobbing as she went.
As Ignacio walked he could begin to hear the stream ahead. The Stygian water was black and inky, obscuring the rocks below. Ignacio found the makeshift bridge situated across the babbling waters and, placing one foot in front of the other, began to make his way gingerly across. Over the rush of water, the whistle began again, this time in crescendo. He looked back to the path behind him but saw nothing. He considered calling out to whoever it might be, but decided against it. On the rancho, the men kept to themselves. It was the same tune from before, the same unfamiliar melody that sent chills down his spine.
He couldn’t see the long, low, bunk houses squatting in the darkness, but he knew they couldn’t be more than a couple minutes away. The earth was worn from the boots of the men who’d come and gone for years, and he followed the trampled trail, trusting its guidance. He felt his hands go numb at the irrational thought of the bunk houses being gone, somehow wiped off the face of the earth with no trace left behind. Ignacio wiped his wet palms against his pants. Again, the slow whistle pierced the air and he began to walk faster. He could now make out the form of the bunk-house, a large shape looming out of the darkness.
He stumbled over a stone and caught himself before falling. His hands were numb and his brow was damp now with sweat. Again the whistle reached him. He could hear it over his own breathing as he ran. He felt the bottle slip out of his hand. It shattered against the stone step as he reached the door, but Ignacio did not pause. He twisted the knob and slammed his shoulder into the heavy wood door.
It gave with a jolt and he stumbled in, pulling it shut behind him. He rested his damp forehead against the wood, his hand still clenched on the knob.
“¿Qué te pasó, Nacho?” It was the mocking voice of Pedro, and Ignacio’s eyes sought him out in the glare of the unshaded light bulb, a shock to his eyes after the darkness outside. “Te ves bien amarillo, güey.” Ignacio didn’t doubt that he looked pale. He turned to face the men sitting around the room on beds and stools. The place was strewn with clothes, boots, beer and tequila bottles. The men were positioned around the room like a tableau, the scene lit by a single hanging bulb and blurred by the smoke from their cigarettes.
Pedro was perched on the top mattress of a bunk drinking out of an amber bottle. The light from the small windows along the ceiling of the room shone through it, lighting it up like fire. Pedro leaned forward and repeated, “¿Qué pasó?” he smirked. “Was el chamuco after you?” A low rumble of laughter rippled around the room. Slowly, he turned to face them. Pedro had left the top of his shirt unbuttoned revealing a tattooed rose, blood red with a dark wine-colored outline, emblazoned across his chest. It was lurid, somehow indecent, and Ignacio quickly averted his eyes.
“No pasó nada,” he said.
“Did you hear the whistle?” Pedro pressed.
Ignacio felt his stomach lurch and was taken over by a wave of nausea. He looked up at him, and Pedro, seeing that he’d hit a nerve, went on, “Did you see who made it?”
“Did you see who whistled?” He took one last drink from the exhausted bottle, leaning his head back and watching Ignacio out of the corner of his eye. He was in his early twenties and small in stature, still more of a boy than a man. He licked his lips maliciously.
“I didn’t see anybody.”
“Yo sí,” he said, his black eyes widening as if to emphasize the importance of what he was saying.
“Pedro,” Alejandro said quietly from across the room.
“You wanna know what he looks like?” He raised his eyebrows. “He looks like a man who hasn’t eaten in ten years. His skin is stretched so tight over his bones that you can make out every one of them, and his eyes are sunk so far back in his head they look like black pits.”
Somewhere in the room, someone snorted, but Ignacio hardly registered the sound.
“He’s got long arms and legs, and he’s seven feet tall.”
“Then he would tower over you,” someone said, and the room broke out in raucous laughter.
Ignacio sank down on his mattress to remove his boots. Seeing that there was no more fun to be had, Pedro returned to his previous conversation. He held up his cracked cellphone screen, showing a couple of the guys a photo of himself standing next to a girl in a tank top and short shorts. He was shirtless and had his arm draped around her, with a hand resting possessively on her ample hip. Her eyebrows were drawn in quizzical brown lines and her black eyes were framed by long eyelashes. Her head rested against the rose on Pedro’s chest, leaving only half of it visible. She was one of several girls who stood in front of the row of dilapidated houses at the edge of town, offering their services. Ignacio bit his lip.
“You see her?” The phone cast a blue light across the men’s faces.
“I’m going back for round two this weekend,” Pedro said with satisfaction.
“Ya cállate, pendejo,” came Fernando’s low voice from a stool at the corner of the room where he sat with two other men.
“You gonna make me?” Pedro lowered himself down from the bunk with a heavy thump. Listlessly, Fernando got to his feet. He stood without speaking.
“I said you wanna make me?” Pedro strode across the room and stood looking up into Fernando’s impassive face.
José Luis pulled softly at Fernando’s arm. “You just got here, Nando. Don’t mess this up. He’s in tight with el jefe.”
Fernando clenched his jaw and lowered himself back onto the stool. The room was quiet.
“Que chinguen a sus putas madres.” Pedro kicked over an empty beer bottle on his way to the door.
Ignacio turned to the wall. He cleared his mind of roses and girls and whistles and black pits and slept.
The moon was relentless, bathing the path in blue light as Ignacio made his way across the cerro toward the ranch. This was to be his last of these walks, back down the winding path from the cantina to the bunkhouse. His bags were already packed and lay waiting for him beneath the mattress where, tonight, he would sleep for the last time.
Ignacio’s was the second departure in the last two weeks. Pedro had disappeared on the night of the altercation, leaving all his possessions behind and disappearing into the darkness. There were whispers that he had owed money that had finally come due. Others hinted at something even more ominous. But el jefe shrugged it off, saying that Pedro had disappeared before and would turn up again before they had time to miss him.
Ignacio rolled up his sleeves; he was growing warm with the exertion of the walk. It would be an early spring. Already, the cacti were blooming, sharp bursts of color emerging from pale green cocoons. He looked around wistfully. It would be hard to start over elsewhere. He had just gotten accustomed to the boisterous conduct of his companions. But el jefe had no tolerance for drunkards. No one did.
Suddenly, Ignacio lurched forward, sprawling helplessly onto his stomach. The gnarled hand of a root had caught the toe of his boot, and by the time he realized what was happening he was on the ground. He lay prostrate, eyes closed, cheek against the cool earth. He could feel his pulse pounding in his temple. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Ahead, to his right, a new rose was illuminated by the moonlight. At once, his mind returned to a different departure.
He’d been holding a hairpin adorned with a red rose, its smooth petals delicately curled into place. This was quality, not like all of Rosa’s previous gifts from the placita. This time Ignacio had taken the bus into town to buy something special for his daughter.
He’d staggered through the door into the hallway, calling, “Alma!” When his wife appeared from the kitchen, he whispered quickly, “Mira, Alma, mira,” leaning in toward her and holding out the treasure, even tipping it slightly to make it reflect the light from the overhead lamp. She pulled back silently and watched as he stumbled into the dining room where Rosa sat on the tile floor, focused on the puzzle she was completing. The room was still decorated with streamers and balloons and a hand painted sign reading “¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Rosa!”
“Papi!” she sang as she watched him enter the room.
He sat down on one of the dining chairs and said excitedly, “Vente pa’ca.”
“You missed the party.” His wife’s eyes were reproachful.
“It was only the family, wasn’t it?” He laughed, turning back to Rosa. “You’re seven now, right?”
“Si, Papi,” she grinned, revealing an empty space where just weeks ago her front teeth had been.
“You’re a little lady now, so I brought you something special. Una rosa para mi Rosa.” He watched her clear, honey-colored eyes widen as he showed it to her in the dim kitchen light. Alma watched from the table.
“Turn around,” he said. “I’ll put it in your hair.”
Then he stood, the floor tilted and he pitched forward, breaking his fall with his palm and pinning the rose against the surface of the table. Even before he lifted his hand, he knew: it was crushed to pieces under his weight. His hand had been pierced by the jagged petals embedded in his flesh. The only part that remained intact was the ridged silver clip.
Rosa hadn’t cried. She’d simply kept her eyes fixed downward and avoided his gaze.
Later, as she slept, breathing evenly beneath the covers, he’d pressed his lips to his daughter’s warm forehead.
Ignacio lifted himself to his feet. He was a few yards from the water when he heard the sound. It was the same low whistle he’d heard before, but somehow more ghostly this time, less human. Ignacio walked faster.
As he approached the stream, he saw that the plank had been removed. He scanned the area fruitlessly, then sat to remove his boots. Quickly, he undid the laces and removed his socks. Then stepped into the frigid water, carrying the boots in his right hand. He kept his eyes fixed on his feet. As he went deeper in, the water reached knees and he began to tremble.
The whistle reached him when he was halfway across and stopped him in his tracks. The slow tune was mesmerizing. Ignacio raised his gaze to the opposite bank and caught a shadow out of the corner of his eye. It was a dark reflection in the silver water. The thing was just as Pedro had described it.
The whistling had ceased. All that remained were the black pits of its eyes.
And Ignacio, too tired to go on, surrendered himself to their power.