The whistle had filled Yara’s dreams for a long time now—ever since she first heard it in the form of an incoming bullet that lodged itself in her best friend’s ribcage. More than anything she saw or heard that day, it was the whistle that most haunted her. It was the first time she understood that the promise of imminent chaos was always somehow worse than the actual chaos itself.
After her mother appeared out of nowhere and dragged Yara to her feet, after they left her best friend dead on the ground, Yara only remembered pieces of that day: the red blood snaking in the dirt, her best friend’s shocked face, the crying—all that crying, so many people. But those were just still pictures in her head, and she could tuck them away.
But the whistle. The whistle remained—relentless and angry.
Yara often dreamed of being chased by the whistle: it closing in on her as she tried to find somewhere in her apartment building to hide. Usually, she ended up in her best friend’s bedroom—the one she had shared with her two sisters and that faced the road and the one where they used to spend hours in as children watching people come and go, making up stories about their lives, imagining what their own lives would be like, a million lives never lived. But in her dreams, the window was boarded up, the bed was gone, everything was gone, and there was nowhere to hide.
All she could do was wait for the whistle to find her.
The whistle followed her all the way to America, to the East Coast, to a house that was also a boat. Yara didn’t know what to make of it at first—this floating barge-like thing that didn’t appear to be sound. Her mother had taken a deep breath when they had arrived, and Yara knew she was thinking the same thing: that dark night spent on a different boat.
But then her mother straightened her shoulders and said, “A home.”
Her English was still shaky. Everything about her was still shaky. But she had never wavered. Not once. Not like Yara had.
From seemingly nowhere, a woman popped up from the deck, followed by a man: her mother’s cousin, Asa, and her American husband. There were tears as those two long separated women hugged. Yara just stood there, staring at the boat as it rocked very slowly in the still water. A center cabin rose from the deck, but all the other living space was hidden. It was painted a bright blue, which was dulled in the dark evening light.
Her father would’ve been delighted by the houseboat—the sheer oddness of it all. He was a man with a pure heart, and that got him in trouble too many times to count. It was that heart that convinced him to stay behind while they fled. He wanted to look after their home and what little of their life was left there. He believed the conflict, the fighting would be over soon and also thought that when it ended, they could rebuild something better.
Yara didn’t know what had happened to him. Dead, yes, most likely. But how and when was a mystery.
“You might not believe it,” James, the American husband said. “But after a while, you forget it’s a boat.”
But forgetfulness was a gift not bestowed upon Yara.
Yara had hoped that the whistle would fade once she was settled. And for the first few weeks, it was thankfully absent. With help from Asa, she got a job at a coffee shop. At first, she was a novelty. Her coworkers marveled at her accent, her skin color, her name, the distance she had traveled to end up behind the counter next to them. The customers were even fairly nice, or thought they were being nice when they complimented her on her excellent English skills or how good she was at making a latte. Within those compliments, of course, was the assumption of her own thankfulness. How thankful she must be to speak English here in America and how thankful she was to serve them coffee when she could be back home dying or dead.
But the clueless curiosity and mild politeness didn’t extend to everyone. Like one day about two months after working at the coffee shop, Yara was leaving after a long shift with her heavy bag on her shoulder, and she was halfway to the door when through the chatter of voices, she heard the whistle. It was edging towards her, moving in and out of the nice people sipping their coffee while on their phones or computers. Her knees locked up as her breathing slowed. She couldn’t stay here. She couldn’t let them hear the whistle.
So Yara surged forward, but she didn’t see someone coming in the door as she went to push it open. She collided with a man, and her bag—filled with books—landed heavily on his foot.
“Fuck!” he yelled.
It seemed everyone in the coffee shop froze.
“What the hell do you have in there? A bomb, you fucking terrorist?” the man said.
There were gasps but also some laughter. The man stared her down, and Yara cowered and mumbled an apology.
He reminded her of the policemen that had patrolled the refugee camp—they said they were there for the refugees’ protection, but everyone knew they were there to keep them within the confines of the camp. They would walk through the makeshift homesteads, eyeing them and scowling at the meager rations and belongings they had managed to collect.
There had been one who had cornered her mother. In the middle of the day, he had pressed into their tent and spoke to her in a language she didn’t understand, but her mother had claimed after that he had sounded sincere, sounded like he wanted to help. And Yara had to explain that he hadn’t expected someone else to enter the tent, he hadn’t expected a daughter, and that was the only reason he had backed away without hurting her. If Yara hadn’t entered at that precise moment, then who knew? Who knew? Who knew what he would’ve done to her?
Yara had been furious with her mother for days after. She couldn’t understand how she could be so stupid. There was no one and nothing to trust anymore. How did she not understand that yet?
In the coffee shop, the man finally scoffed and brushed past her. It felt like everyone in the small space was looking at her, their eyes filled with contempt, with suspicion. It was clear that they had thought it before—terrorist—and now the thought was validated.
The whistle accelerated, louder than ever, and Yara knew it was time to run again.
Yara ran all the way back to the dock. But once there, she stopped short, her lungs working painfully in her chest, her panic a familiar, unwanted feeling. She couldn’t let her mother see her like this. And the houseboat—in too many ways—reminded Yara of the refugee camp: cramped, dark, claustrophobic inside, and vast outside.
Except, of course, unlike the camp, here there was an escape, a freedom of sorts. Yara didn’t have to stay within the houseboat’s confines; she could walk the dock and the public park that stretched far and wide down the coast.
There was a spot she liked: a cove that contained a grouping of trees. It offered a good view of the sea while hiding her from view. Yara sat on an old, fallen over tree trunk and tried to regulate her breathing. She felt ridiculous. Worse things had happened to her. Far worse things than this. She watched her best friend bleed to death in the street. She had lost her beloved father. She had spent months in that refugee camp, starving and watching others starve. She herself had almost died.
So what did this one man matter?
She should be stronger than this. But how could she be strong when she couldn’t even fend off the whistle? Which even now was searching for her along the shoreline.
“Where’d you come from?”
Yara jumped to her feet, ready to run again. She turned and came face to face with an old woman. She hadn’t heard anyone approach—not a hint of rustling or the crunching of steps.
“Where’d you come from?” the woman asked again.
Yara didn’t know what she meant. “From the docks. Over there. The houseboats.”
“No, no, not there,” the woman said. “Where did you come from?”
It was a startling question, even though Yara had answered it a million times before. In all the interviews with American officials, they had asked that exact question along with many more: questions about her life, her parents, her grandparents, her political views, her religious beliefs, what she thought of America, of her country, and so on and so on until they knew her seemingly better than she knew herself.
But where Yara had come from? A country that wasn’t and would never be the country she remembered it to be. A home in ruins.
“I come from nowhere,” she said
The old woman nodded. “That’s a long way aways,” she said.
Then without knowing why, Yara said, “He called me a terrorist. This man I don’t even know. A terrorist.”
The woman frowned deep. “And are you?”
Yara recoiled, but also balled her hands in fists. “No, I’m not!”
The woman shrugged. “Then who cares what some no-name man says?” she said.
Yara didn’t know how to respond to that. She cared. She didn’t know why but she cared.
“No, no, don’t give it another thought,” the woman said, walking towards her. She paused when they were side by side and rested her hand on Yara’s shoulder. It was barely a touch—a haunting of a comforting hand. It stilled Yara. Made her feel weightless.
The woman lifted her hand and then continued on, disappearing somewhere down the beach.
Yara sat back down, watched the waves gently roll in and then recede. It took quite a long time to realize the whistle had disappeared as well.
The next morning, as Yara ate breakfast with her mother and Asa, she thought about the old woman. She wondered if she should say something but didn’t know how she would explain it. Didn’t know how to describe the blissful silence that the old woman had left in her wake.
“I had a terrible night of sleep,” Asa said, pouring herself another cup of coffee out of the old one-pot coffeemaker. “I woke, and I swear there was this high-pitched sound. I don’t know where it was coming from. It was like it was everywhere. Or like it was coming right towards me.”
Yara went cold. Had Asa heard the whistle? No one had ever heard it before.
“High pitched?” her mother asked, frowning.
Asa repeated herself in Arabic.
“Oh, yes,” her mother said. “Yes. I heard it. A high pitch. A whistle?”
Yara stood from the tiny table and mumbled something about being late for work. All throughout the day, she tried to convince herself that whatever her mother and Asa heard was not the whistle. It was possible they had heard nothing at all. Or if they had, then it was the houseboat. The floating home was full of otherworldly sounds: creaks and groans, moans and squeaks. And that was not to mention the sound of the water itself: lapping and beating, pulsing and rocking.
But the next day, Asa’s husband also talked about hearing the whistle. Yara only overheard the conversation—of course, it was near impossible to have a private conversation on the houseboat as the walls were so thin, the space so small.
“I thought it was ordinance,” James said, his voice reminding Yara of her father’s when he would try to comfort them as the bombs fell. “That faraway sound of incoming death.”
James had been an American soldier who had served all over the Middle East. Asa had met him in Germany. Her family had more money than her mother’s, and they had sent Asa to school in England and instead of returning home after she was done, she had traveled Europe.
“No, no, it wasn’t that at all,” Asa said. “And it wasn’t in your head. It’s not the hallucinations coming back. I heard it also.”
“It was so real,” James said.
“It was real,” Asa said. “And it was just a temporary sound. We won’t hear it again.”
Yara felt responsible. As if she had brought the whistle more fully into the world somehow. And now it was haunting everyone—everyone who had escaped war.
But, no, it hadn’t been her, right? It was the old woman. She had done something when she had touched Yara on the shoulder. Which meant she had to find the woman and make her undo it. Yet as she had no idea where the woman lived, Yara haunted the cove for days, somehow thinking she would simply show up there. She didn’t, of course. And it wasn’t as if Yara even knew what she would do or say if she did appear. Because accusing the old woman of magnifying the whistle meant admitting its existence to another person—something Yara had never done before.
Inevitably, it got worse.
The whistle spread as quickly as a crumbling building went down. Within days, almost the whole houseboat community was hearing it, and thus began the debate about what it was. Some thought it an interesting quirk of nature. Others thought it came from the power plant miles away. Then there were those who thought it was coming from space. But the discussion about what it was soon turned to how to deal with it.
Her mother slept with ear plugs. “It’s not so bad,” she said. “I’ve slept through worse.”
James and Asa slept with a white noise machine. “It almost blocks it out,” Asa said. “Well, I think so. James has started putting towels around the doorframe. He thinks it’s coming from the shore.”
Yara knew that nothing they did would quiet it. Her worst fear was that someone would realize that she was the one that brought the whistle into their lives, so she did her best to say the absolute least.
She had used the same strategy in Germany, after they had left the refugee camp. Silence seemed the only answer. In the unfamiliar country, she was afraid to open her mouth and let it be known she was a foreigner. She could walk the streets and imagine that when someone looked at her, they saw a German, saw someone who belonged.
But Yara was only there by luck. Her mother had remembered Asa’s old phone number in Germany, and when they had called—a kind old woman in Greece letting them use her telephone—Asa was gone, but her roommate was not. Asa wired them money, and they made their way to Germany.
But when they arrived, it was not what they had hoped it would be. They were not saved. Her mother absolutely hated it. She didn’t like the city, the business, the sky in the morning, the way people looked at her, the loneliness, the lack of any other family. Asa’s roommate let them stay with her, but they couldn’t keep living off of her, so she got Yara a job where she worked—and Yara learned how to make coffee for all the good it would do her later. And with Asa’s urging, they applied for asylum.
For three years, they waited. For three years, Yara tried to outpace the whistle, working all she could, sleeping as little as could, smiling for the American officials all she could, answering in all the right ways she could.
Yara all but disappeared in Germany. In all that silence.
“You aren’t happy with me,” her mother said during one of those dark nights in the tiny apartment they had rented.
Yara was tired, having worked a double shift. The whistle was an echo in her head, and she knew she would dream of it again—it would come to her as soon as her eyes closed. “No, I’m not mad at you,” she said. “It’s all fine.”
Her mother said nothing else. They both knew things were not fine. Yara wasn’t happy with her.
In many respects, they had become strangers. No words of worth passed between them—what they had gone through together was never discussed nor was anything about their life back home, including Yara’s father. In some way, Yara knew it was the only way her mother could continue on with most of her sanity intact.
But perhaps what bothered Yara most about her mother was this: she still had hope. Her mother had never lost it, but Yara had—lost it that night off the coast of Greece when the boat had capsized. Her mother’s hope had brought them to America, which was also not a dream. It was much the same as it was in Germany, but now worse, because the whistle was heard by all.
About a month after the whistle became prevalent, there was a community meeting. Those who in lived in the houseboats were an eclectic mix of individuals. There were retirees and young people; those who shunned belonging to any system and those who loved being a part of something. James had inherited his houseboat from his grandfather: “He didn’t care for people much. If he could’ve lived in the middle of the ocean, he would’ve.”
“I would choose the mountains,” Yara said. “If I wanted to escape. The top of a lonely mountain. Just me.”
James had nodded. “That sounds nice. Maybe a cabin and add in a dog, and you got yourself a nice dream,” he said. “But Asa would never come. She’s one for city life and movement and being busy.”
James was a mild type, single focused. He worked at a home improvement store and complained that people asked him a lot of stupid questions—even though he always made an effort to politely inform them of their errors. He didn’t tell anyone he was a veteran. When her mother asked him why not, he explained that people would automatically thank him for his service, but how could you thank someone when you had no idea what they had actually done? And they didn’t want to know. Not really.
So while James tried to disguise himself, it was sometimes hard for Yara not to think of James as the solider he was. Or imagine what it was that he must’ve done. The people he killed. People like her father. Like her. Deliberate damage and collateral damage.
What was for sure was that James had also killed himself. But he was trying to bring himself back to life the best he could. Or at least was trying to convince himself he deserved to be alive, which was half the battle.
At the meeting, James sat with his arms crossed as people took turns standing up to complain about the whistle. Yara had no plan to say anything, and her mother seemed confused about how passionate and angry everyone was about such a minor thing.
An older man then stood and after going on about how he was reaching the end of his rope, he—out of nowhere—pointed to Yara and her mother. “And I’ll tell you what: it didn’t start until they got here.”
All eyes turned towards them.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Asa said, a barely suppressed note of fury in her voice. “We have nothing to do with this sound, with this whistle.”
The man didn’t back down. “Oh, so it’s just a big old coincidence that you foreigners show up and suddenly some weird whistle starts haunting the houseboat park! Come on. First, it was the weird smells coming from your boat—“
“Weird smells? That’s the smell of good food. Not that you would know anything about what’s good,” Asa said, jumping to her feet. “And how do we know the whistle isn’t coming from you? Your boat is an utter mess. Everyone says so.”
Yara looked over at her mother who was now staring at the floor. She might not understand every word, but she certainly got the gist of it.
“We should be calling the cops,” the man said, turning to the others. “God knows what they’re planning to do. Probably some kind of attack. They’ll kill us all!”
“That’s enough!” James said, rising to his feet like a thunderstorm. “You will not speak to my family that way. We’re done here.”
The man yielded, but only slightly so as he mumbled something about traitors. Yara followed James and Asa out, her mother trailing behind. She tried not to look at anyone in the crowd, but a shadow caught her eye. There at the very back of the room was the old woman. Yara stopped, and her mother ran into her. Yara looked away from and back to the old woman, but she was already gone.
“Keep going,” her mother said, pushing her forward.
Keep going. Well, Yara had to, didn’t she? Or else the whistle would take her.
Keep going. Her mother had said that exact same thing when they were in the sea.
Keep going. Swim. Keep your head above the water.
Keep going. Yara had went under. She had given up in that moment. She let herself sink. She wanted to open her mouth and breathe in the water but her body wouldn’t let her. Even down below, the whistle was slinging itself towards her. There was no peace anywhere.
Keep going. Her mother grabbed her arm and pulled her to the surface.
Keep going. Was that what she hadn’t forgiven her mother for? Saving her?
Keep going. But Yara didn’t want to.
After the contentious houseboat meeting, knowing she had to find the woman, Yara went back to the cove. She sat for hours, waiting. Then once again, like the first time, the woman was just there, materializing like that bullet had in her best friend’s chest.
“How’d you do that?” Yara said. “Just appear like that?”
“Practice,” the old woman said. “And I don’t know if you got it.”
“Got what?” Yara asked.
“The will to make yourself disappear.” And just like that, the old woman blinked out of existence in the dim fall light and then reappeared. “It’s a neat party trick,” she said. “You know, if I went to parties.”
“I don’t—I don’t understand,” Yara said. How could it be real? How could someone be capable of such a thing?
“Oh, well, there’s no understanding it. Believe me, I’ve tried,” the old woman said. “But never mind that. It’s not what you wanted to see me about, right?”
Yara breathed deep. “The whistle,” she said. “Did you do that? Did you somehow magnify it?”
The old woman stepped closer, shook her head. “I don’t have anything to do with the whistle,” she said. “Do you?”
“No!” Yara said. “I mean, no, I didn’t make anyone else hear it. It’s always been just me. I’m the only one who hears it.”
“And it’s been haunting you? This whistle?” the old woman said, and Yara nodded. “Yes, yes, I know that feeling. My sound was different. The buzzer. It chased me everywhere I went. Through phone lines and televisions and radios—it never failed to find me.”
Yara felt something inside of her collapse. She was rubble. All the rubble she had waded through as she escaped the only place she had ever lived: buildings turned to ruins, ruins to dust, peace to chaos. Her body had made it out, but she hadn’t. Not really.
“Will this be forever?” Yara said. “Will the whistle be forever?”
The old woman shrugged. “That’s up to you.”
Yara didn’t like that answer. “But do you still hear—what was it? The buzzing?”
“No,” the old woman said.
“Then what did you do to get rid of it?” Yara said, the all too familiar feeling of desperation surging through her.
“I went home again,” the old woman said.
It was a non-answer. That was all this woman had. “I can’t go home,” Yara said.
There was a rustling behind them, and a voice said: “You’re going to have to go somewhere. Because you’re sure as hell not staying here to drive all of us crazy.”
It was the man from the meeting. Yara had avoided looking at him too closely then, but now there was no avoiding it: he was tall and lanky, and his eyes were dark and hollow. What Yara most took notice of was the gun in his hand.
The whistle had been building all throughout the conversation with the old woman, but it was deafening now.
Unwillingly, she wished for her father. For him to be here. To not have so foolishly stayed behind. He was supposed to be here to protect her. They were supposed to be together always—the three of them. Why did they have to lose each other? How was that fair?
“I’ve had enough,” the man said, his voice slow and quiet. “And if no one else is going to do anything about it, I will.”
This man was going to kill her.
To compound matters, as he raised the gun, her mother appeared behind him, unaware of what was happening.
“Yara?” her mother said. And then when realizing the complexities of the scene: “No, no, do not. Do not!”
She couldn’t lose her mother. Not in this way. Not ever. So as the man swung his body around, Yara set off towards her mother. The old woman disappeared. Then the strangeness of the whole incident came into full effect as the old woman reappeared directly in front of the man. She reached out a hand and grabbed his wrist. He didn’t try to break free. He just stood there. Yara made it to the arms of her mother and watched as the man became an echo. Like a pencil drawing being erased, his arm, his shoulder, his head, his torso were smudged away until there was nothing of him left.
“Don’t worry,” the old woman said. “He’s not dead. He’ll fade back into existence. Won’t remember a thing. Although, he’ll still be a nutter.”
Her mother hugged her close, and said, “Thank you. For saving my daughter.”
The old woman looked up and away as if unable to take the sincerity in her mother’s voice. “Well, you know, it’s nothing. So,” she said. It seemed she wanted to say something more, but she shrugged and walked away as if nothing otherworldly had happened.
“Let’s go home,” her mother said.
“Okay,” Yara said.
They talked very little about the old woman and what she had done at the cove. Her mother seemed relieved of something. She laughed more. Smiled more. It was revelation.
The one time Yara had asked her mother what had brought on such a change in her, she said, “I didn’t know there were still miracles in the world.”
“Is that what you would call what that woman could do? A miracle?” Yara said.
“To use a power like that for good?” her mother asked in return. “Yes, a miracle.”
Yara didn’t feel any change in herself—or at least, she didn’t think she did.
But there were things that lodged themselves inside you, whether you wanted them to or not. Things that would not leave you, whether you wanted them gone or not. A million terrible things lived inside of Yara—the ugliness of people, their cruelty, the fragility of all things, the fragility of her best friend, of her father. But in equal measure, there were also the good things—her mother pulling her ashore, her best friend’s laugh, her father’s strong hand holding hers as they walked through the market every Saturday.
And all Yara wanted was to learn how to let the good grow louder than the terrible.
On her way home from work, Yara was halfway down the dock when she saw a man lying belly down on the boards. His hand was in the water, and when he pulled it out, up came a large, satellite type thing. Once he stood, he noticed her watching.
“Hi there,” he said.
Yara wanted to turn and run—always her first instinct. But she steadied herself and said, “Hi, what’re you doing with that?”
“Oh, this? Yeah, I’m studying what I think you all have been calling the whistle?” he said. “This records the sound that the frogfish are making.”
Yara didn’t understand him. “Frogfish?”
“Yep, frogfish. Weird name, isn’t it? They don’t actually have anything to do with frogs—besides being slightly ugly,” he said. Then sensing her continued confusion, he went on: “They’re mating right now. And that’s what this whistle business is about. The sound is coming from them. You might want to pass that along. I know people have been freaking out over it. But they’ll be gone in couple of days. It’s already quieted down a lot.”
It was then that Yara realized that she hadn’t heard the whistle in some time. She had been so consumed with thinking about the old woman, her mother, and the strangeness of that day she hadn’t put it together: the whistle had disappeared that day along with the man. And unlike him—who showed up days later, looking dazed and mellowed—the whistle hadn’t returned.
“Do you want to see a frogfish?” the man said. “I have one here.”
Yara said yes, and the man opened the lid of a bucket. His hands disappeared and then reappeared cradling a grayish-looking fish.
“Here,” he said, placing the creature in her awaiting hands.
It was slimly and placid in her palms. It was such a small thing to make so much noise. But it pulsed with life—she could feel its blood pumping and its muscles straining and its heart pounding, all under its smooth scales.
“I don’t think it’s so ugly,” Yara said.
“Well, yeah, I suppose it has its charms,” the man said, taking the frogfish back. “It can survive off very little. Even in these muddy shallows it does all right.”
Yara thanked him and made her way to the houseboat. She still felt the slickness, the tenderness of the frogfish’s body as it laid in her hands. She paused before boarding the houseboat, before going under the deck. There was another strange singular sound reverberating inside of her: the beating of her own heart echoing the beating of a frogfish heart.
The rest was silence.