By Sanford Allen
Download the PDF edition of this issue.
Sunil began complaining about the statue of Kali Ma the instant he saw it on the shelf behind the reception desk.
Aarti knew he would.
“Do you really need to put this in view of customers?” Sunil said, picking up the black, four-armed statue and turning it over in his hands.
Aarti watched as her husband pretended to shudder at the sight of Ma’s fanged mouth, her dangling red tongue.
“When someone checks into a hotel,” he said, “they want to see a sign offering them a free continental breakfast. Or cable TV. Or Wi-Fi. They don’t want to see the Black Mother dancing over Shiva’s body with a garland of skulls around her neck.”
Aarti turned her attention back to the computer as she keyed in invoices. Stay calm and let Sunil fume, she thought. This was an argument she would win.
“Are you really telling me not to display a statue of a goddess my family has been devoted to for generations?” she said, not looking up from the screen. She pushed a strand of wavy black hair behind her ear. “I can’t believe you’re so embarrassed of our culture. You live here 15 years and you start to forget you’re Indian.”
Sunil put the statue back on the shelf, shaking his head.
“Correction: This is part of your culture, not mine,” he said. “Maybe it’s acceptable to Bengalis, but we Punjabis don’t devote ourselves to gods that scare away customers. What’s wrong with a nice statue of Ganesh sitting cross-legged and content? Or Lakshmi, peacefully holding a lotus flower?”
“Kali is a compassionate goddess. Some of our most famous Bengali poets were devoted to her. Besides, this is the Kali Yuga, the Age of Kali, on the Hindu calendar.”
“I don’t dispute a word of what you’re saying. But don’t you think a black-skinned woman with fangs and a sword sends the wrong signal to customers?”
“Ma, she doesn’t kill people; she kills demons. Surely, you remember the story from childhood. How Kali saved the world from the demon Raktabija. The gods couldn’t kill the demon because every drop of his blood that fell to the ground would turn into another demon. Ma spread her tongue across the battlefield so that, when their swords cut him, not a single drop hit the ground.”
Aarti peered up from the screen and saw Sunil slip the statue back on the shelf. Looking at it with something close to a smirk, he ran a hand through his thick hair. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes as if the discussion had already exhausted him.
After three years of marriage, Aarti had learned that the key to winning any argument with Sunil was to remain calm while he became more and more flustered. He was well on his way.
“We Bengalis have a long history of honouring Kali,” she said. “So, you will just have to deal with it, pati. I’m a Bengali and a devoted Hindu, and I’m not embarrassed to be either thing.”
Sunil exhaled and pursed his lips.
“You’re devoted enough to have your daily puja to Kali Ma,” he said. “But you seem to forget that it’s also part of the Hindu religion that a wife should treat her husband as God in his house.”
Aarti looked up again to see Sunil push the statue close to a potted fern, apparently hoping the plant’s wide green fronds would obscure it from customers. He shook his head disdainfully.
She turned her attention back to the computer screen, pretending none of this bothered her. That’s it, she thought, let him get rattled. Let him shake his head and throw a tantrum.
“Devoted husband, do you forget that, after I finished my master’s degree, I agreed to follow you here to North Dakota – far from my family and far from job opportunities – so that you could take over this motel? Do you forget that I am also putting off a career so we can start a family?”
She didn’t look up, but rubbed her hand over the front of her orange-and-yellow salwar kameez, feeling the roundness that her belly had taken on during the past four months.
“There’s always Bismarck State. Once you’ve had the baby, you can – ”
“Can what? Pursue a doctorate in plant sciences or veterinary microbiology? My Masters is in mass communications. Those programs don’t do me a bit of good.”
Silence. Sunil let out an exasperated sigh.
“I’ve got too much to do to spend time arguing over a stupid statue,” he said. “The Wi-Fi’s out again. I’ll be in the office fixing it.”
He slammed the door.
Aarti smiled to herself, keyed in a few more invoices and walked to the shelf behind the counter. She slid the statue away from the obscuring fronds of the palm.
Mickey tapped a cigarette from his crumpled pack, stuck it between his lips. He returned the nearly-empty pack to the pocket of his oil-smeared jeans jacket.
Through the cracked windshield of his pickup, he could see the squat-brick Roadside Inn that Dan wanted them to hold up. The place looked like it had been built in the ’70s and the owners were too cheap to update it. The paint on the brown trim was flaking off; the shutters were missing slats and the white sign out front was streaked with rust.
Seemed like he and Dan should be aiming a little higher if they were getting money together for a big score.
He punched the truck’s lighter into the dashboard.
“So, what’s the story? Why this place? Don’t look like much to me.”
Dan scratched at his goatee, then ran his hand over his shaved head. He frowned.
“It don’t look like much is the exact reason we’re gonna knock it over, dumbass. I been in there a month ago when I was working for that carpet-cleaning place. There ain’t no alarm system, no security guard. There’s just a dune coon couple running it.”
“I thought motels had maids and handymen and shit.”
“Nope. There’s just the two of ’em. Mr. and Mrs. Dune Coon. They got a couple a Mexican women that come clean the place in the mornings, but they’re long gone by sundown.”
The lighter popped out of the dash with a declarative “thunk”. Mickey pushed his long hair back from his face and lit his cigarette. He held the lighter out so Dan could torch his.
“You really think they got cash in there? Don’t people use credit cards at motels?”
“This is one of them motels businessmen go to on their lunch hour,” Dan said, exhaling smoke. “They don’t put those things on their credit cards, Einstein, because they don’t want their wives finding out.”
“So, how much you figure they got in there?”
“It’s Sunday night. That means banks are closed, so they’ll have two days’ worth of money waiting to deposit. I seen where the safe is in the office. Top of that, the bitch has got gold jewelry in the bedroom of their apartment.”
Dan tapped the dashboard and licked his lips. “There’s something else of hers I wouldn’t mind getting, too – and I ain’t talking about jewelry. She’s kinda skinny, but not bad at all. Seems like she bathes, unlike most of them.”
Mickey nodded. He hoped Dan was kidding about the wife, but figured he probably wasn’t. He didn’t exactly want to pull his partner off the woman while sirens blared in the distance. He’d done real time twice, and he didn’t plan on going away again just because Dan couldn’t keep it in his pants.
“Figure they got enough to get us over to Spokane?” Mickey asked. “I mean, if your buddy’s saying he can cut us in on that deal, we’re gonna need some decent bread.”
Dan raised an eyebrow as he dragged on his cigarette.
“I guarantee you they’ll have more’n that truckstop in Edgely had in the register. We coulda made out pretty good there if you’d waited to pull the trigger after the kid got the goddamn safe open.”
“He was going for a gun down there, Dan. Swear to God, he was.”
“He didn’t have no gun down there. You just panicked like a bitch.”
“Well, if you – ”
Dan nudged him hard in the ribs. “Look,” he said. “There she is. What’d I tell ya?”
Mickey looked up and saw a dark-skinned woman in a baggy orange-and-yellow outfit leave the motel’s lobby with a small trashcan. Her long scarf flapped in the wind as she walked to the dumpster across the parking lot. She didn’t seem to notice their truck parked across the street.
He’d pictured her skinnier, but Dan was right, she wasn’t bad. Gaudy outfit left too much to the imagination, but at least she wasn’t covered head-to-toe in one of those black tent things.
“I’d hit it,” Mickey said. He took a drag.
“Let’s get outta here.” Dan cranked the engine. “We’ll come back once it’s dark. Do the job.”
A chill October breeze blew into the office as Aarti closed the glass door behind her. She put the trashcan under the reception desk and slipped into the sweater she kept draped over the chair. As cold as it was getting, she guessed it wouldn’t be long before the first freeze and the months of snow that followed.
She cupped her hands over her mouth and blew into them. Tonight might even be a good time to move the chili and coriander plants from the patio into the office. The plants could still get light through the big windows but be safe from the wind that cut like an icy razor.
It had gotten cold in Missouri, where she and Sunil met going to school. But nothing like this. She had survived one Bismarck winter, but just barely. To stay warm, she cooked as much as she could in the apartment, wore a wool hat and bulky North Face jacket when she sat behind the counter. Even with the heater on high, the breeze that blew into the lobby chilled to the bone.
The weather wasn’t the only thing she didn’t like about Bismarck, though. At least in Missouri, there was a temple, a place to rent Hindi films, to buy groceries. Here, she had to mail-order cooking ingredients or grow her own. She remembered going to the Cash Wise when they first moved to Bismarck and asking the stock boy for black mustard seeds, only to have him direct her to jars of Grey Poupon.
She heard Sunil in the hall near the lobby talking to the cleaning crew in his bad Spanish. Hers wasn’t particularly good, but she always felt embarrassed for him when she heard him stumbling clumsily through the language.
“Chupa la alfombra?” Sunil, she thought, you’re telling her to suck the carpet. Aspirar la alfombra. Aspirar. She tried in vain to will the instruction into his head.
No use, she thought, Sunil is a numbers-oriented person, and you are a language-oriented person. That’s all there is to it.
Eventually, Sunil stopped butchering the Spanish language and the cleaning cart’s squeaking wheels receded down the hall.
He walked into the lobby, his eyes immediately fixing on Kali Ma, no longer obscured by the palm. Exhaling loudly, he edged the plant closer to it again.
“Can’t you find some other place to put that, Aarti? In the apartment, maybe?”
“No, and that’s final. It’s part of my heritage and my family’s traditions. My father and his business partners have a statue of Kali Ma in the lobby of their office in Kolkata. Don’t you want a blessing on our place of business?”
“Aarti, I don’t want you to stop giving puja to Kali. I just wish you’d realize this isn’t Kolkata. People here are suspicious of foreigners. Look, I’ve lived in the U.S. since I was 13, but when I walk through the aisles at the Cash Wise, some of these people still look at me like I’m planning the next 9-11 attack. Who knows what they think when they see a statue of a woman with skulls around her neck?”
“Their religion’s symbol is a bleeding man nailed to a cross. I don’t think they have room to judge.”
Aarti opened her spice tin and measured mustard seeds into the mortar and pestle. As she ground them, they gave off their familiar smell – bitter yet inviting.
It reminded her of the muri she would buy from the street vendors on Chowringhee Avenue in Kolkata. How she’d craved it since she’d begun carrying the baby – puffed rice, onions and chilies, drizzled with mustard oil and tamarind. She and her sister, Ajanta, would eat it off of a folded banana leaf and lick the sticky, sour tamarind from their fingers.
Aarti ran a finger through the mustard seeds, making sure they were ground finely enough. She emptied the crushed seeds onto a small plate next to sliced chilies and nigella seeds so they would all be close when she started cooking.
She didn’t miss Kolkata’s smog, the trash-strewn gutters, the frenzied traffic. But she did crave its vibrancy. Everything here felt so still, so isolated.
Here, people liked bland food. They were afraid of eating with their hands. Somehow, they could exist in unbearable cold.
Looking up from the kitchenette counter, she saw Sunil splayed out on the living room couch, a football game on the television. Thankfully, he was too absorbed in the game to notice how late she was with dinner.
She wondered how Sunil could sit glued to a three-hour game that was nothing but big men running into each other, yet complain that her movies were too long, too full of songs.
The buzzer from the front desk sputtered angrily. She looked up. Sunil was already standing to answer it.
“I’ll get that. Let’s just hope your Kali Ma hasn’t frightened away the guest before I get to the front desk.” He wagged his tongue at Aarti as he walked past. She scowled back.
She knew the statue still bothered him, but at least he could joke about it now. Perhaps this was a positive sign.
The door to the lobby closed behind Sunil, and Aarti walked to the freezer. She pulled out a bag of okra. Fresh was so much better, but it was near-impossible to find here, especially once the weather cooled.
She dropped the bag in the sink, and heard the familiar “ka-ching” of the cash register from the lobby. This time, though, a loud thump followed. She heard raised voices, and then a second, louder thump.
She froze, unsure whether to go to the door and see what had happened. Had Sunil knocked over that stupid gumball machine again? Or was something wrong?
More raised voices and a crash.
Aarti looked first at the door, then to her cell phone on the kitchen table. She reached for the handset.
The door exploded open, and a gaunt man with long hair and a dirty jeans jacket strode into the apartment, a black pistol at arm’s length.
“Get down on the floor unless you want a bullet in the face,” he shouted, a drop of spit shooting from his mouth.
“Where’s my husband?” Aarti raised her hands, leaving the phone on the table. “What did you do to my husband?”
“He’s kissing the floor right now. Same thing you need to do. Get down. Now.”
Aarti squatted and began to lower herself to the floor. She could have dropped faster, but didn’t want to risk hurting the baby. The man cursed, grabbed the back of her neck and shoved her to the floor, smacking her head against the cold linoleum.
“I told you to get down.”
He brought back his boot, and Aarti curled into a ball, tucking her legs up to protect her stomach. The kick connected with her shin. She yelped as currents of pain shot through her leg.
“Now, tell me where you got your jewelry.”
“The bedroom,” she gasped, holding her shin. “It’s in the bedroom. Where’s my husband?”
Sunil staggered into the room and tumbled to the floor. His shirt was hanging open and blood dripped from his hairline.
A second intruder – a man with a shaved head, goatee and a worn leather jacket – followed. He kneeled and poked a pistol into Sunil’s face, just below his eye.
“Ain’t no other safe in the building? There wasn’t jack shit in the one you opened up out there.”
Sunil shook his head. He seemed dazed. What had they done to him? How badly had they hurt him?
“No other safe,” he said. “No other safe.”
“We probably got all the cash,” the long-haired man said. “She said there’s jewelry in the bedroom.”
“Bullshit,” the one with the goatee said. “There wasn’t even a hundred bucks in there. I say they got another safe hid somewhere.”
He smacked Sunil across the forehead with his gun. Aarti screamed. Her husband twitched once and lay still.
“Leave him alone! He told you the truth!” Her vision blurred and she realized tears were clouding her eyes.
“You shut up,” the bearded man said, aiming the gun at her. “Unless you want me to kill the both of you.”
He turned to his partner.
“Go back into the bedroom, get the jewelry and anything else worth taking. I’m gonna have a little talk with our girlfriend here, see where they got the rest of the money hid.”
The long-haired man nodded and left the living room. The one with the beard grabbed Aarti by the collar of her salwar kameez and dragged her across the floor. She tried to tear his fingers from the hem of her shirt, but he held tight.
He yanked her through the bathroom door and slammed her against the side of the tub. With one tug, he ripped down the blue-and-purple-flowered shower curtain, its plastic rings raining onto the discoloured linoleum.
The man jerked Aarti to her feet. She thrust out her hands, tried to push him away. But he kept his fist tight around the material of her shirt and thrust the pistol into her face.
“You wanna get shot? Is that it? Hands up.”
Shutting her eyes, Aarti raised her hands. She realized they were shaking now, barely in her control. She breathed in, tried to calm herself.
Something cold snapped around one of her raised wrists, digging tightly into the flesh. There was a clank of metal, and she felt the man’s calloused hand around her other wrist, jerking her upward. Cold metal snapped around that one too, and she felt herself dangling, standing on tip toes.
She opened her eyes and looked up. Her hands were cuffed on either side of the curtain rod, the cuffs’ short connecting chain stretched over the top.
“How about that?” the man said. “Just like on COPS.”
He stepped close enough to Aarti that his stomach touched hers. She twisted herself, trying to recoil.
The cigarettes on his breath, the medicine smell of his aftershave, made her sick. She thought of Sunil bleeding on the floor in the other room. She gagged. If she had anything in her stomach, she would have vomited it onto the bathroom floor.
“We’re gonna stop playing games now, understand? You gotta have more money somewhere around here, so tell me where it’s hid.”
“There’s – There’s no other safe. We don’t have any more money.” Please, she thought, just let them realize there’s nothing else to take. Let them go away.
The man curled his fingers around the waistband of Aarti’s pants. His knuckles were rough against her hip. She gagged again and bit her lip.
“You sure there ain’t no more money? Don’t keep none hid under the mattress or anything?”
She shook her head, closing her eyes again, gulping in breath. She was sobbing now. Her shoulders and wrists hurt as she dangled from the curtain rod.
She flashed on the statue of Ma in the lobby. Ma was here to protect Sunil and her. She breathed deep, trying to steady herself, to stop crying. She opened her eyes.
The long-haired man was standing in the bathroom doorway now. He held up a pillowcase and shook it. Metal clinked inside.
“Got the jewelry. I’m going back to the office, keep an eye out to make sure no one drives up.” He paused, looking Aarti up and down. “If you’re gonna do something with her, make it fast.”
“Hey, don’t you worry about me. Romeo can make ’em scream in no time.” The goateed intruder nodded his head toward the living room. “If dumbshit over there wakes up and starts anything, put a bullet in him.”
The other man left the doorway.
“Just you and me now, sister.” The man with the beard ran the cold barrel of his pistol down Aarti’s cheek and smirked. He jerked her pants down to her ankles. She felt chill air on her skin and winced, curling one leg over the other.
“Don’t do this. You have all the money.”
The man stepped behind her and pulled up the long tail of her kameez, holding it at the small of her back. Something cold touched the back of her thigh and she cringed. It was the gun barrel.
She closed her eyes again. Kali Ma’s face flashed across the back of her eyelids, mouth open in a bloodthirsty grin. Her teeth were bared and her tongue dangled snake-like. Staring out of the terrifying black mask, though, were eyes that exuded motherly concern.
Please, Ma, help me. Help us.
Aarti twisted her body, trying to wriggle away from the man, but he put an arm around her waist and pulled her back, pressing his cheek against hers. His beard prickled against her neck.
“Don’t do this,” she said, surprised at how flatly the words came this time. “I’m pregnant.”
“In that case, you understand how this works. Might as well enjoy it.”
Aarti kept her eyes shut. She concentrated on the grinning blue-black face of Kali Ma. She who cast aside negativity. The slayer of demons.
“Om Kring Kalikaye Namaha, Om,” she said under her breath. I bow to you, Kali. She repeated the mantra, louder, and again.
“Shut up with that.” The man grabbed a fistful hair, jerking her head back. “You’re gonna make me lose my hard-on before I even get my pants down.”
“Om Kring Kalikaye Namaha, Om.” She ignored the pain at the back of her scalp and repeated the mantra. Again and again.
As she spoke the syllables, the world around her faded.
All she could see was Kali Ma in her triumphant dance, Shiva at her feet, the severed arms and legs of her enemies strewn across a broken battlefield. As Kali’s ankle bells jingled in time with the mad dance, all other sounds around her faded. The bells shimmered in her ears like cymbal crashes.
Aarti was vaguely aware of someone tugging her hair again. This time, there was no pain. She heard a faint voice submerged beneath the jangling of Kali’s bells, but she couldn’t make out a word of it. She had joined the dance, become one with the Black Mother.
“Om Kring Kalikaye Namaha, Om.” She laughed as she uttered it this time. Kali continued her dance, mouth open in a blood-drunk smile, tongue weaving like a cobra prepared to strike. Her eyes were glowing yellow points. A third opened in the middle of her forehead.
Under the thunderous bells, a distant scream. Was it in the next room? In the next universe? Another scream. Gunshots. They too could have been a world away.
Kali’s frenzied dance continued, her sword slashing the air. Its blade moved too fast to see, a blue-grey smear. Severed heads plummeted from the sky, terror-filled eyes bursting from their sockets. Arms, legs, chunks of meat rained down. The Black Mother’s tendril-like tongue darted at impossible speed, consuming every drop of gore before it touched the ground.
Aarti smiled, let her head loll as Kali’s dance reached its climax. The Black Mother’s hands chopped at the air; her feet propelled her impossibly far from the ground with each stride. The sound of ankle bells, of her feet cracking the earth drowned out every other sound.
Eventually, the goddess’ movements became more languid, and the cacophony of the bells subsided. She whirled her final pirouettes. The scene of carnage faded away.
Aarti breathed deeply. There was a coppery taste in the back of her mouth. She realized no one held her hair any longer.
She opened her eyes and saw her hands upraised toward the bathroom’s flickering fluorescent light, palms touching. The handcuffs were gone. She was alone there, the apartment silent.
Mickey looked down at the speedometer. The orange needle twittered crazily between 105 and 110. His knee was locked, his foot jamming the accelerator down as far as it would go.
Dan shook in the passenger seat, his knuckles white around the grip of his pistol. “What the fuck was that back there? It couldn’t have been real. Just stepped out of the bathroom mirror. Out of the goddamn mirror.”
Mickey grunted, eyes locked on the road. None of this would have happened if they’d have just taken the money in the safe and gotten out. He shuddered as he thought of the four-armed black thing that had followed Dan out of the bathroom. The thing with teeth like a pit bull and goddamn severed arms hanging around its waist like a skirt.
“I shot right at it, man.” Dan looked at him, eyes wide and crazy. “It just disappeared, then it was there behind me. That shit can’t be real.”
“We both saw it. It was real.”
He looked into the rear-view mirror and saw two glowing yellow points behind them. Headlights. Who the fuck was it? Fast as he was going, they were still keeping pace. Goddamn cops. No, if it was the cops, the red-and-blues would be flashing. He squinted, looked into the mirror again. The yellow lights weren’t exactly round, more the shape of eyes. A third winked into view, just above the other two.
Dan twisted himself around on the seat, looking out the back window. He was screaming now. The gun jerked in his hands as he fired out the window, the shots deafening inside the cab. The glass fell like a glittering green curtain.
Mickey put every bit of his strength into jamming the accelerator. He saw Dan screaming, but no sound came from his mouth. The engine vibrated through his leg, but he couldn’t hear it, either.
He turned his eyes back to the road. In the glow of the headlights, the highway surface had changed from dull grey to the colour of cherry candy.
The whole strip of road seemed to heave, like something had grabbed it on one end and given it a shake. The truck bounced, wheels coming off the ground for a split second. The yellow center line was gone, replaced by a deep cleft.
Mickey looked into the mirror again. This time, the three glowing eyes were connected to a face, a blue-black face that covered the entire horizon. The glistening crimson road in front spilled from its grinning mouth, teeth like a pit bull’s.
He joined Dan in the soundless scream and jerked the wheel to the side.
“Thanks for the tea, ma’am,” Officer Cloonan said, his hand on the lobby door. “Never had it with the spices in there like that.”
Aarti nodded. “You’re welcome.” She rubbed her wrist. It still hurt where the handcuffs had been.
The officer seemed nice enough – they all had – but she wanted him to go. She was tired of questions. It seemed like all she’d done these past hours was answer questions.
“You sure you two are going to be OK?”
“Fine,” she said. “I’m sorry Sunil wasn’t feeling well enough to talk. With his concussion, the doctor said he needs bed rest.”
Cloonan put on his flat-brimmed hat and pushed open the door a couple of inches. Wind whistled into the lobby.
“Well, at least that pair won’t be bothering anyone else. They’re still picking pieces of them up from the Interstate.” Cloonan shook his head. “Weirdest thing, though. Usually, when there’s a high-speed rollover like that, there’s blood everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Seen it happen. This time, they didn’t find one drop of blood. Not on the road, not even inside the truck.”
Aarti opened her mouth but said nothing. The coppery taste on the back of her tongue returned. She covered her mouth and coughed nervously.
Cloonan looked down. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Got carried away there. Sometimes, I forget people don’t want to hear the gory details.”
Aarti smiled and nodded quickly.
“Well, you take care, ma’am.”
After Cloonan left, Sunil walked into the lobby, a thick pad of gauze taped to his forehead. His right eye was swollen nearly shut.
“Was that the police again?”
“Yes, pati. The officer was just checking up. You really should be in bed.”
Sunil put his arm around Aarti’s waist and touched her stomach. “I just wanted to make sure you and the baby were fine.”
“Yes. We’re fine.”
Before Sunil walked back into the apartment, he slid the potted palm away from the statue of Kali Ma.
Sanford Allen is a writer, musician and former newspaper reporter living in San Antonio, Texas. His dark fantasy and horror stories have appeared in Necrotic Tissue, Niteblade, Morpheus Tales, Sand: A Journal of Strange Fiction, 52 Stitches, and other magazines and anthologies. His band, Boxcar Satan, recently released its fifth full-length CD, after doing a brief stint as the house band in R’lyeh. Visit him at on the web at www.sanfordallen.com.