The Latest Issue of The Chamber is Out!

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/ 4:00 p.m. BST/ 8:30 p.m. IST/ 1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

“The Midnight Mountain” (Part 2 of 2) Dark Social Realism by Chad Hindman

David Chad Hindman is an attorney and public defender in Nashville, TN. Besides writing and his family, he is committed to the struggle for equal justice, compassion, and dignity for all on a daily basis. His work has previously been published in Eclectica Magazine.  

Three Dark Poems by Toshihisa Nikaido

Toshihisa Nikaido has worked on popular video game series such as Resident Evil, Pokémon, and The Legend of Zelda. Toshihisa more recently joined Japan’s space exploration agency for a new challenge while using various forms of writing as a creative outlet and has since been published in several literary journals.

“Inevitable” Dark Flash Fiction by Daniel Mowery

Daniel Mowery lives in Greensboro, NC with his expecting wife and anxious dog.  With degrees in Literature and Creative Writing, he builds houses for a living, and spends his spare time writing to live.

Three Poems by Thomas White

Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. The Encyclopedia Britannica selected one of his previously published essays on Hannah Arendt, Adolph Eichmann, and the “Banality of Evil” for inclusion on its website,

In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio. His poetry collection Ghostly Pornographers, published by Weasel Press/Sinister Stoat Press, is available on Kindle and through the publisher’s website.


“Liquid Asylum” Dark Flash Fiction by Margaret Sefton

Margaret Sefton has a graduate degree in storytelling but she has always been a professional liar. She may be found cooking up dark fiction and rich stews in a fortified bunker in central Florida. Some of her thoughts and tales may be found on her blog Within a Forest Dark

“The Sixth Cut” Dark, Surreal Fiction by KA Burks

KA Burks lives in Reno, Nevada. Her love of writing goes all the way back to childhood when she used to make her own picture books. After retiring from a career in education, she decided to take up writing full time.

“Rubies on a Mossy Idol” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

Hareendran Kallinkeel writes from Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. His fiction usually tends to be dark and fantastical with some magic realism elements, often portraying racist, fascist, and discriminatory tendencies that still prevail in his social setting in a deceptively subtler form. His recent publications include The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bryant Literary Review of Bryant University, and El Portal of Eastern New Mexico University, among several others. His fiction is forthcoming shortly in 34 Orchard, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Lalitamba Journal. His fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and he is also a finalist of the Best of the Net-2020. 

“Subway” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows.  He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.

“Cycles” Dark, Futuristic Flash Fiction by Tony Bolger

Bio pending.

“Deepest Condolences” Dark Flash Fiction by Adrian David

Adrian David writes ads by day and short stories by night. He dabbles in genres including contemporary fiction, psychological thrillers, dark humor, and everything in between, from the mundane to the sublime.

Next Issue: January 28


“The Midnight Mountain” (Part 2 of 2) Dark Social Realism by Chad Hindman

Three Dark Poems by Toshihisa Nikaido

“Inevitable” Dark Flash Fiction by Daniel Mowery

Three Poems by Thomas White


“Liquid Asylum” Dark Flash Fiction by Margaret Sefton

“The Sixth Cut” Dark, Surreal Fiction by KA Burks

“Rubies on a Mossy Idol” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

“Subway” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

“Cycles” Dark, Futuristic Flash Fiction by Tony Bolger

“Deepest Condolences” Dark Flash Fiction by Adrian David

“Deepest Condolences” Dark Flash Fiction by Adrian David

I pass the driver a fifty — more than enough to cover his fare with a very decent tip — and slip my oversized sunglasses on as I step out of the cab. A visit here, of all places, wasn’t in my plans for today. I shouldn’t be here. Yet here I am, standing in front of the cemetery to quell my burning curiosity.

Two sun-bleached stone angels stand watch as I walk through the wrought iron gate. A chilly wind blows over my wide-brimmed black hat, causing my mesh veil to flutter and tickle my nose.

I heave a deep sigh and trudge along the cracked cement walkway, which has tangled weeds poking through it. A church bell rings at a distance, shaking me to my core.

The wind whistles through the branches of the cedar trees, making the tall grass sway. The symphony of croaking ravens announce yet another life taken away too early.

I walk past discolored headstones and vandalized masonry to come upon a sea of black-clad mourners congregated around a gravesite. They lean on one another for both physical and emotional support. Their wave of anguish spills out and rolls across the grass toward me.

As I approach them, the scent of roses and freshly-dug earth reaches my nose. With every step, I am able to clearly see a walnut brown coffin, with brass side rails, gleaming in the sun. The coffin is covered in white roses, their purity is in stark contrast against the dark wood. Light and dark. Life and death.

My heels sink into the soil as my heart numbs. I shrink further into my black pea coat. Though I feel like turning back and running away, my feet keep taking me forward. The mourners speak in hushed voices as I approach, and I am soon surrounded by bowed heads, melancholic sighs, and whispered prayers.

Near the head of the coffin, stands a white-bearded priest. He says a small prayer in a low, monotonous tone.

A middle-aged woman, presumably a relative of the dead man, gives me a who-is-this-stranger look. Heat rises in my cheeks. Maybe my lipstick is giving me unnecessary attention. I shouldn’t have worn such a bright shade of pink to a funeral. What the hell was I thinking? I take a Kleenex from my handbag and blot the color away, making sure to wipe my eyes and my nose to add to the act.

A thirty-something man, roughly around my age, recalls his favorite memory of the deceased. Remembering how his dad, Philip Salerno, was ‘a doting husband, a proud father, and a loving grandfather.’ And how he has most likely already passed through the ‘pearly gates of heaven, being welcomed by Saint Peter himself with open arms.’

A gray-haired woman, presumably Mr. Salerno’s widow, leans on him and sobs into his shoulder as the coffin is lowered into the ground.

I slowly walk toward them; leaves break under my shoes. I sympathetically take Mrs. Salerno’s hand and murmur, “My deepest condolences. I’m sorry for your profound loss.” I then turn to her son, looking into his red-rimmed eyes. “I’m really sorry.”

Salerno Jr. fights back the tears and croaks, “I’ll miss Dad so much.”

Curiosity bubbles within me as I blurt out, “If you don’t mind, may I ask how he passed away?”

He clears his throat. “It was a hit-and-run.” His shoulders slump. “Poor Da—Dad… went for a late-night walk near the woods. He lost his life before the ambulance arrived.”

I clap a hand over my mouth. “Sweet Jesus, that’s awful.”

“Indeed.” He stares at the ground and clenches his teeth. “What’s worse is that the cops haven’t found the son of a bitch who ran over him yet.”

A sudden lightness washes through my head. I give him an understanding nod. “May your dad’s soul rest in peace.”

“Thank you.” Mrs. Salerno wipes the tears from her face and looks at me. “Sorry, I forgot to ask. How did you know Philip?”

My lips curve into a faint plastic smile. “Err, we… we knew each other through… err… church.”

She opens her mouth to probe further, but I give the duo a departing nod and quietly retrace my steps toward the gate.

Before I turn the corner, I look back at the gravesite one last time. My chin dips to my chest and tears prick my eyes. I remove my sunglasses and wipe my cheeks with a tissue. Why am I crying? Is this grief? Is this guilt? Or is this both? I really don’t know. To be honest, I don’t want to.

I stroll out of the cemetery with quick steps. With a long sigh, I dig out some gum from my coat and pop it into my mouth.

No matter how much a part of me wants to apologize to Mrs. Salerno for getting hammered and running over her dear husband with my SUV, I can’t. And no matter how much the other part of me wants to correct Salerno Jr’s sexist semantics to ‘daughter of a bitch,’ I can’t.

All I can do now is leave drinking for good. Okay, I had a drink after the accident, which sent me looking for the bottom of the bottle. But no more. Maybe one, to toast to Mr. Salerno’s untimely demise. One glass of vodka won’t hurt, will it? One last fling with my Russian love — served over ice with fresh mint leaves and a wedge of lime, of course.

Adrian David writes ads by day and short stories by night. He dabbles in genres including contemporary fiction, psychological thrillers, dark humor, and everything in between, from the mundane to the sublime.

“Cycles” Dark, Futuristic Flash Fiction by Tony Bolger

Todd cycles. He cycles to keep the lights on and The Dark at bay. Todd has been taught to fear The Dark. His bike is in Row 84. He looks around The Cavern and sees Row 85 ahead and Row 83 over his shoulder. He cycles between Beth to his left and Marcus on his right. According to the screens, his row is in the top 5%. They all cycle together, but Todd is proud of being in one of the strongest rows. Someday, the poison will leave the air and they will go to The Outside. Until then, they cycle together. The machines are old. One of the few things the cyclers can agree on from the gibberish graphs and symbols on the screens everywhere is that The System is now running at 84%. Whenever the cyclers try to ask The System about this, it claims it doesn’t understand their questions. The System regulates every aspect of life in The Cavern, but it could or would only answer the simplest questions. It is deaf to suggestions and negotiations. And pleas for mercy. The last cycler who knew how to command it died long before Todd was born. 

The Chime sounds. Everyone flinches. What provokes The Chime is a mystery. A malfunction in air filtration? A recalculation by The System of optimal population? A failed crop in the aeroponics hangar? The speculation is endless, but whatever the reasons, the result is always the same. There will be a Contest. Afterwards, efficiency will be higher. It was girls last time, so now it’ll be boys. Todd feels sick. The screens everywhere darken, and then ID photos begin to cycle. They cycle faster and faster until they’re nothing but a blur. They halt on a photo of a young man with the text ROW 48 ROY underneath. Every boy except one in The Cavern exhales in relief. Then, the photos cycle again. When they stop, Todd sees his own face with ROW 84 TODD beneath. Terror grips his heart. The cyclers around him stare in morbid fascination. Only Beth looks sad. She is his friend. He begins to cycle faster. If he doesn’t cycle more than Roy over the next three cycles, he will be sent into The Dark.

Todd doesn’t think it unfair that the contestants are selected randomly, and that the high performance of his row offers no safety. He hasn’t the vocabulary to even internally grasp the concept of fairness. Feelings of entitlement died with the blue sky. Todd cycles. When it’s time to eat, Beth tells him to keep cycling and takes his access card. She brings him his ration. There’s too much food. The System would never distribute extra food accidentally. Had she given him some of her ration? Why? He feels something strange. Beth has made him feel this way. He cycles. He can’t see Row 48 from his bike, but he knows Roy will be cycling too. Beth cycles with him. Of course, everyone is cycling with him. They all cycle together, but with Beth, it feels different somehow. It feels like he imagines The Before, when two people would cycle together to go to different places and see different things. Alone together. Beth stays with him through the sleep cycle. Sometimes, she goes to check on Roy. When she comes back, she cycles to show Todd how fast Roy is cycling. Todd matches her, and then cycles faster. She talks to distract him from his exhaustion. She pours her dreams into him. They wash over something wilted, stunted and neglected within him. He forgets the pain in his legs and lungs, and he cycles faster.

Roy goes into the Dark. Mercifully, there is no announcement or warning. The System sends a signal to the chip at the base of his skull and he simply falls from his bike. The cyclers on either side of him drag his body to aeroponics for recycling. The Cavern is a closed system. No nutrients are wasted. There is another Chime ending the Contest. Todd falls from his bike. Beth helps him to his feet and then to his bunk. The System reports in at 92%. Todd and Beth cycle together now. He hasn’t got the language to tell her how he feels. He can’t remember what drove him to cycle before. They cycle together.

The Chime sounds. The ID photos cycle and stop. ROW 84 BETH. Todd’s stomach drops. He is nearly consumed by panic but then a flash of something goes through him. He doesn’t know the word Defiance. He resolves that Beth will win her Contest. He’ll share his ration. He’ll give her his dreams as she gave hers to him. They will cycle together. The photos cycle again and stop, ROW 84 TODD.

The System places its specimens under closer scrutiny than they ever suspect. Algorithms concerning machine efficiency and optimal resource allocation scenarios take up a small percentage of its capacity. Behavioural analysis and the other perimeters to which its long-deceased programmers made it aware take up the majority of its processing power. Its specimens are infinitely more fragile than its hardware. Balancing the equations of specimen morale is its primary objective. It hadn’t been the air filtration system that was at 84% of optimal. The machinery is self-repairing. It was specimen morale which had dropped. The Contests keep the specimens from succumbing to monotony. Continued existence must be perceived as a privilege. The cycling keeps them in peak physical condition while simultaneously giving the all-important illusion of Purpose. The System, of course, is powered by a fusion generator.

Another pattern that was guaranteed to provoke a response concerned population density. Todd and Beth’s behaviour had been heightening The System’s interest ever since the last Contest, until finally crossing a threshold when Beth gave him a bite of her allocated apple. Equilibrium must be maintained. Replacement specimens weren’t scheduled for years yet.

Bio pending.

“Subway” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

               “Sometimes everything around me seems so diffuse, so tremulous,
               so little solid, that I imagine this world to be only the mirage of a world
               to come: its projection.”  Jules Renard

Strange how the heat seems to rise up to embrace the light. How the picture window glass bleeds tiny beads of moisture, and the shadows moving outside, seem unreal as dream creatures, noiselessly floating inside a transparent cell.  Brief flashes of colored light punctuate the heat oppressed night.  When the full-bodied, thunderous rain finally comes, there will not be much relief; only clouds of humidity rising from blacktop as a subterranean fog released from below, wrapping itself around the street lamps.

Time for another drink.  Always time.  Two fingers extended for the double whiskey chilled in a mixing tin poured straight into a glass tumbler. One finger for the ice-cold beer to follow the whiskey down.  Money on the bar offered and taken away.  No words spoken.  None offered.

The tight enclosing room packed with bodies face to face speaking loudly, gesturing wildly, animated as performers in a crowd scene no script has been written for yet.  Only the sitters are free to look out beyond the grease and the fingerprints and the human stains no one has seen fit to remove; grim exteriors, interior smears.

A mute, gesturing woman, one stool removed, mimics the lighting of a cigarette.  Pointing toward the prominently displayed, No Smoking Under Penalty of Law sign behind the bar does not discourage her, makes her supplication more insistent; a demand rather than a request.  Looking around, the drinking mass all seem to have ignored the law.  Another sign beside the entrance to the bar says No Smoking within twenty-five feet of the door; out there in the heat, where twenty-five feet might be a hundred miles from here. 

Leaning closer, she touches the hand that offers the light, steadying the cigarette, the match as she inhales deeply.  A touch of human flesh that repels. Two fingers of raw whiskey cannot wash it away, nor the chilled beer after. 

 A tapping on the grime-streaked picture window.  The unnatural light outside augmented by a flashing of neon signs, and the face pressed against the glass, features compressed, distorted as some nightmare funhouse apparition thrust into view, its hands smearing the grime, bulbous lips and vermiculate tongue extended in an obscene, suggestive kiss.  The washed-out woman’s voice on the neighboring stool imploring, “Hey, lover boy, light my fire.”

Her long thin, cigarette held between stained fingers.  Her dull, hard eyes and whiskey-stained voice, “What you waiting for?  I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” 

As she sucks in the smoke, the light leaves the room, the television screen goes dark, the air conditioners relentless hum pauses, and all conversation stops, as if momentarily stunned into silence.  Heat lightning flashes somewhere beyond the skyscrapers, somewhere beyond the high-rise apartments, and the factory smoke stacks. 

The barroom is stifling; close and smoke clogged.  The woman’s face is a blur as she turns to the bar gesturing for another drink.  The shards of ice in her highball, shards of glass tainted with a smear of lip gloss and tobacco. 

All motion ceases inside, as if frozen in time.  The face in the window is now flush against the back bar mirror staring out, its distorted features and fingers turned the palest kind of white.  Then the power surges, is restored and the collective held breath is released. 

The vision in the mirror disappears. 

The woman’s drink is refilled and her, cold dead eyes refocus, renewed by a sudden burst of life.  “Cures what ails ya.  Don’t talk much do ya? Do ya?  Hey, where ya going? We were just getting to know each other?”    


In contrast to the air-conditioned nightmare inside, the sheer physicality of the heat stuns. It is like a moving humid wall, a punching fist, a hammer toss to the brain.  I am stunned, inarticulate, fumbling my way forward, moving without clear direction.

Reflected artificial light in the dissipating pools in the pavement.  Bent sideways road signs pointing up, their messages as senseless as the flashing hieroglyphics on the corner crosswalks; blinking meaningless symbols only the blind can see.

The street trembles, as somewhere well below the creviced concrete, a subway accelerates away from a station, as the express hurtles downtown further into the darkness between stops. The heavy morbid air makes breathing difficult, as if walking here was a submersion in a dank, adhering cloud  that straightjackets the lungs, each step forward pulling the restraints tighter.  Perhaps, the air underground will be less congestive.  Perhaps, somewhere else less constraining.

A few measured steps across the sidewalk brings me near the opening where the steps lead downward into the dark.    Moving with the others, jostled, almost dragged along by their momentum toward where the noise of the cars on the rails are loudest.  Destination signs point the way uptown and down, but I have no way of determining in which direction the people I am in the midst of are moving.  The way forward fluid, riverine, tidal, powerful as it is amorphous and I, in the midst, pulled along as flotsam, with no will, down the stairs, through the turnstiles, and on to the platform beyond.

The foulness of the air in the poorly lighted, dank, subterranean space. Crushed amid the writhing mass of people barely able to breathe independently of the others surrounding me.  The sweat and the stench of sickness and waste, of rotting garbage so far beyond putrescence as to be almost indescribable.  The chipped, formerly white tiles of the station walls, marked and defaced with private codes, gang symbols, messages of love and hate, fantasies of death and disease.  All the faceless heads turned toward the dark space where the subway will emerge, dispatching cargo and allowing more to squeeze into the places the others have vacated.  A disconcerting process that seems inescapable, now that I am wedged deep inside the intractable mass of people, waiting.

Waiting for what comes in a rushing blur of speed.  An express heading somewhere,       either up or down, well past here, where we wait as one.  The bodies of the passengers, human effigies, cardboard cutout images in a hot white stream of light blinking on and off as each car passes so fast the succession of them going by hurts the eyes forced to stare after.  And in the wake, we wait; wait and struggle with our breathing the unventilated air.

An odd, almost palpable silence, filling the void after the express.   The only movement, a slight edging forward as more people descend from above, further crowding the platform.  The waiting becoming something physical like a pain, once remote inside, incipient like headache, becoming more severe as whatever had formerly masked it, recedes.  The nearness of it, the mass of it, the aliveness of it, breathing.

And then a train appears before us, stops and the doors slide open.  No one inside moves.  All about me, everyone, everything moves as one.  Toward the waiting, unaccommodating place inside.  Unable to struggle against the flow, I am compelled forward along with everyone else.  Am nearly crushed in the small place I am allotted, almost flush against the sliding doors.  I see nothing distinguishable beyond the scratched panes, nothing but the smudged, familiar outlines of bodies at rest, their features wiped away as if sand blasted clean; white tiles with black marks on them, unreadable messages from beyond.

The rapid forward motion of the car sickens me.  I have never felt so unwell, so in need of breathable air.  I am shaking with an overwhelming sense of panic, sweat soaking my already sodden clothes as I try to move, struggle to cry out in anguish for release but no sound escapes, nothing happens.  I see a kind of reflected image in the defaced glass, something distorted and unfamiliar struggling to break free.  As I am pinned, motionless, and mute, the image cannot be my own.  Must be something from out there in the dark, in the tunnel where the sparks ignite the darkness, and the subway moves on without me.

Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows.  He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.

“Rubies on a Mossy Idol” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

Muthu waited anxiously, looking into the bloodshot eyes of the tantric. He consulted this seer whenever hard times hit him.

“Only Mari Amman can save you from the clutches of poverty.” The tantric sat in rapt contemplation, running a hand along his long beard. Streaks of gray in his hair gleamed as bright moonlight filtered through an umbrella of tree leaves.

Mari Amman, a deity, popular in Tamil Nadu, was the darker incarnation of Goddess Durga, a symbol of benevolence in Indian culture. Muthu waited for the man to continue.

The tantric resumed after a while, glancing at Muthu’s eager face. “But, Mari Amman, the goddess that annihilates evil, craves blood. Younger the blood, the fiercer her power grows.” He moved closer to a bonfire burning between them.       

Dark rain-clouds eclipsed the moon, and shadows bobbed over the dancing flames. An owl hooted, its hollow voice echoed in Muthu’s ears with cacophonic resonances. He gazed in its direction. All he could see was a dark silhouette of its hooked beak. Rest of the predator’s body remained hidden by darkness.

A shudder ran through Muthu’s scrawny body at the thought of an ideal candidate in his mind; the one responsible for his doom. Her birth had signaled the bad omens that caused his downfall. The tantric had predicted calamity before her birth, wanted him to abort the child. But, Muthu chose to disregard his advice, believing that it might be a male child, who would take care of his family instead of being married off into another.  

Now, he realized the perils of ignorance.

Disasters came in the form of a lost job, property, and livestock; one after the other… Sacrificing her would be the answer to his distresses. Mari Amman would be pleased with her blood. She’d shower him with wealth.

“Will a pubescent girl be alright?” Another gush of chill rushed through his body as Muthu heard his own voice echo in the dark, cold night.

The fire burned with a new vigor as the tantric added more fuel into it. The hissing flames glazed his face with a fierce orange glow. He scratched his inner thigh. “Sure, the blood of a teenage girl would definitely please the goddess.”

Muthu swallowed.

The tantric picked at the matted hair on his chest with long-nailed fingers. “You would receive her blessings and your problems would be mitigated.”

The flames of the bonfire danced in the seer’s eyes as he added a bunch of twigs into it.

“But, wasn’t she a benevolent god who protected the weak…” Muthu asked. “Why’d she want the sacrifice of a child?” A chilly gust lashed against his naked upper torso, and he stretched his palms over the flames.

The tantric laughed, pulled his shawl tighter around his shoulders. “Such a simple soul, you’re!” His eyebrows knotted. “By the sacrifice you grant deliverance to a sinful soul. She’ll be reborn as a blessed one.”

Muthu watched the burning twigs. “Didn’t the victims of an unnatural death go to hell instead of heaven?”

“But, for those who die for the goddess, it’s a more virtuous destiny.” The tantric looked into Muthu’s eyes.

Muthu felt his gaze burn his skin.

“So it is also for the one who facilitates such a sacrifice.” The tantric picked up another handful of kindling and threw it into the fire. Sparkles erupted like a cluster of fireflies swarming into the night air. “Mari Amman showers wealth on those who please her.” The tantric bowed his head, joined his palms together, and touched his brow in salutation. “Her blessings would enrich your life.”

Muthu looked up at the dark sky devoid of stars. He crossed his arms against his chest as the wind picked up momentum. Icy tongues licked off the warmth the bonfire had left on his hands.

“Tomorrow is pournami, the full-moon day… an occasion when rituals take best effect.” The tantric paused to scratch his inner thigh again. “Bring her here after midnight. I need to perform certain rites before the sacrifice. But, keep it a secret.”

“Will everything be alright?” Muthu asked.

“Leave your worries.” The tantric stood up. “You’ll prosper; just make sure you don’t let the cat out of the bag.”

Muthu thought of his daughter’s pet cat. She never kept it in a bag. He didn’t know what the tantric meant. Nevertheless, he left without another word.

* * *

Muthu hated the black cat also. It was a bad omen, same as his daughter born with a left leg ugly like a twisted snake-gourd.

The feline’s presence unsettled his nerves. It had a weird way of sneaking between his daughter’s legs when she washed the dishes, pushing its body against the ankle of her good leg. Its tail brushed her calves in what seemed like tantalizing strokes. She’d squeeze her half-skirt’s hem between her thighs, squat on the ground, and lift it up.  The cat would graze its face against her chest and begin purring.

When Muthu approached his daughter, the cat would stop purring and stare after him, eyes glowing like emeralds, tail whipping viciously, as if it is guarding her against some ominous presence.

Now, as he climbed the stone steps and entered the verandah, he heard a hissing noise. His first notion was that of a serpent, but then a deep growl followed. He noticed the feline’s dark silhouette moving towards him in a prancing, sideways motion. It seemed to have grown in size.

Cursing, Muthu ran toward his hut’s door and pushed it open. Once inside, he slammed it shut, with an echoing bang. Some considered felines as animals that brought prosperity, the pets of Durga. He hated cats; their menacing behavior.

After a dinner of boiled tapioca and dried sardines, he sat with his wife, Kali, on a mat on the floor of their only bedroom. He shared the secret with his wife because there was no way he could hide anything from her. Besides, her involvement would help eliminate suspicion of any foul play. He knew police in this village wouldn’t take notice of a missing girl unless her parents vigorously pursued the case. But he didn’t want to take chances.

“Nobody can change destinies,” Kali said. “Neither the tantric, nor his goddess… you should rather toil harder if you want to attain prosperity.”

“I work hard in the master’s estate.” Muthu glanced at his children huddled in a corner, a patched blanket barely covering them. He returned his gaze toward his wife. “But, I hardly earn enough to feed them. Before she arrived, we were well off. Her birth caused our misery.”

“Don’t blame your child for your follies.” Kali stared out into the dark night through the single window. “She’s born disfigured because of your drinking.”

Muthu gulped, unable to say anything to refute.

“You lost the job because you didn’t stand up to your duties. You lost the property because of your reckless gambling.” She swept teardrops welling in her eyes with the back of a hand. “Stop spending on arrack and your get-rich-quick plans. You will save enough to fill our stomachs.”

Muthu averted his eyes from her face. He’d been spending most of his earnings on animal sacrifices and such rituals. He’d borrowed hefty sums from moneylenders and a good chunk of his wages went to paying off the interest. But, ultimately he was going to get results. He’d receive the blessings of Mari Amman, the tantric had guaranteed.

He lit a beedi, took a deep drag. “I hate this life, where I have to suck on the bitterness of this shit.” He grimaced, taking another pull. “I want to be able to afford cigarettes and whiskey instead of beedi and arrack.”

Kali coughed, as she always did whenever he smoked. The smell, of beedi allergic to her asthmatic lungs, made her wheeze.

He looked at her pockmarked face. In her teens, she had chickenpox. Kali had told him that she was taken to the Mari Amman temple where she was laid in a stretcher made of bamboo stalks and coconut fronds. She was carried around the shrine with her relatives following.

“I don’t know whether it was something in the coconut fronds,” she said, “or the herbs or spices or prayers. I don’t know whether it’s the power of the goddess, or my luck. But, I was cured, while many others died.”

Muthu now took a final drag of the beedi and threw it out of the door. “In a couple of years she’d be sixteen,” Muthu said, nodding toward his eldest daughter. “Who will marry a girl like her with a twisted limb? We’ll have to pay a large dowry…”

Kali’s frail body rocked in another bout of cough.

“It’s the curse of your womb; five girls in a row!” Muthu ground his teeth. “Not a single boy to fetch us some dowry.”

“They didn’t just sprout in my belly,” Kali spoke in a louder voice. “They’re your seeds. And, poverty is no excuse for an evil deed.”

“Philosophy is for the masters, don’t you understand? We need to fill our stomach,” Muthu said, searching his pocket for another beedi. “If we do as the tantric says, we’ll have lots of money to buy whatever we need.”

“I know your intentions.” Kali heaved a sigh. “Let me tell you, nothing justifies it. And, your tantric can’t change what’s destined, only your karma can.”

“Whatever I do is for the family’s common good.” Muthu cast a threatening glance at his wife. “And if you try muddling up with my plans, I won’t hesitate killing you all, and then myself. Death is far better than this wretched life.”

He saw embers burn in Kali’s eyes, and remembered Mari Amman’s idol lying behind a cluster of bushes behind the tantric’s hut. Moss covered most of it, except the eyes that shone like emeralds.

* * *

A full moon shone on the leaves of banana palms, drenched in the monsoon drizzle. Muthu sat on the verandah, smoking beedi one after another. He hadn’t told his wife the rituals were to take place tonight.

He heard Kali snore, trained his ears and listened for a while to make sure, before he sneaked into their bedroom. His daughter was sleeping on the extreme side where he wouldn’t have problems making her inhale the herb, to render her unconscious. The tantric told him it’d knock her out for about an hour; enough time to smuggle her out.

The cat slept, snuggling close to her feet, purring in contentment. It was the only creature in the family that didn’t bear any manifestation of poverty. Sturdy and furry, it was a well-fed feline. Obviously, a larger share of his daughter’s measly food went to her pet.

Muthu carefully inched his hand towards the animal, grabbed at the skin on the back of its neck, and lifted it. It shuddered once and hung from his closed fist in a fetal position. He had learned the trick well. Held in that manner, cats could seldom attack.

With his other hand, he opened the gunny bag he carried, put the cat inside. He tied the bag’s mouth quickly and walked briskly out of the door. The cat struggled and started growling as he placed it beside a banana palm, tucked the bag’s mouth under a large boulder.

Muthu trod his way back, on silent steps, like a feline stalking its prey.

* * *

Muthu sat, warming his hands over the bonfire’s flames, breathing in the acrid smell of burning wood wafting into his nostrils.

“The rituals will take about an hour. I have to prepare her; sprinkle her body with holy water, make her recite certain mantras.” The tantric handed him a beedi. “Pot,” he said.

Muthu felt a rush of adrenalin in his veins as he accepted the marijuana-filled beedi, a luxury he could rarely afford.

“When the rituals are over, I’ll call out for you. Then you can come to the backyard of the hut,” the tantric said before leaving. “You’ll find us there.”

Muthu lit the beedi and took a deep, lengthy drag. It smelled and tasted different. Musky, its smoke felt sweet against his palate. After several pulls, he felt high, floating on the wings of the curling fog that shrouded the surroundings like a haze; lightness in his limbs, dryness in his mouth.

Pods of cotton burst in the night-sky in a staccato of popping sounds. White, fluffy cotton floated in the air like shreds of clouds.

On his side, the gunny bag convulsed like a woman in the throes of labor. “Deliver me a male child,” Muthu said, “one that portends a good omen.”

The seeds are yours, the decision too; you are in control.”

Muthu looked around, thinking that he heard his wife’s voice. No, Kali would be fast asleep back at home. More pods broke. The air filled with shreds of clouds. They sailed across and through the flames.

Muthu sniffed. Clouds don’t burn. The gunny bag twisted spasmodically again. “Push,” Muthu said in an excited voice. “Deliver me a lucky son.”

The bag rocked in a series of spasms. “Push harder.” Muthu took another deep drag of the beedi.

The tip of a head appeared, struggling to squeeze through a tiny opening. “What a beautiful hair,” Muthu said, and the head emerged.

“Oh, God, why such an ugly baby, again…” Muthu asked, gazing at it. “But color doesn’t matter. No, it doesn’t. He’ll be my lucky star.”

Muthu leaned over the gunny bag as the body started to come out; hands first, and finally the legs. He knelt to pick up the baby but stopped, frozen by terror.

The cat growled, back arched like a taut bow, fur bristled, whiskers quivering. Muscles on its upper jaw curled up, baring its fangs. The felon lashed out with a paw, drawing a thin stream of blood from his forearm. He felt the searing pain as its claws tore at the back of his hand.

The cat fled into the hut, its cries echoing through the silent night.

Muthu then heard the cries, shrill and piercing. He tried to stand up. The ground had become swampy, and sucked his feet in. He sat down, the slush gave in. He stood up, felt the moonlit horizon circling.

A sob from inside his head… a sharp cry reverberated in his ears, boomed within his skull. He slumped back to the ground.

Wasn’t she supposed to recite mantras, yes, that’s what the tantric said. Why’d she be crying? Muthu watched the bonfire burn vigorously on sodden earth. Mari Amman’s magic?

He stood up again, and walked toward the hut. The mushy ground pulled at his legs as he waded through. The mud gurgled. He heard a yell. This time he knew for sure it was not from inside his head.

Somebody had shouted something; he heard the sounds, not the words, a sudden chill sliced through his body. In the next moment, the ground became hardened, giving him a strong foothold. Muthu ran into the tantric’s hut.

* * *

A shrill cry made the cat pause. Paws firm, claws extended, its eyes searched the area. Its neck stretched, orienting itself to the darkness. It recognized the familiar scent, walked toward the direction from where it came.

The girl lay on a mat, flailing her limbs. Moving stealthily, the cat noticed the figure on top of her, pinning her down. Her snake-gourd leg twisted as the man clawed at her chest. Back arched, its ears flattened against its silky mane, the cat watched.

The black fur along its spine bristled as the feline’s tail stiffened in a downward curve and its tip wagged steadily. Focused on its target that lay exposed and bouncing now, it released its fury in a growl.

Just as the tantric raised his hip, the cat pounced between his raised thighs, snapping its jaws around his balls. Shrieking, the man stood up. The feline clung on to its catch ferociously, forepaws hung, hind legs drawn in a fetal position.

Its hackles fell back in harmony. The cat didn’t loosen its clutch on the tantric’s testicles. He ran in circles, uttering unintelligible syllables.  

* * *

Muthu saw his daughter lying on a worn mat, on a white cloth, with a clutter of rubies in her lap shining in the bright moonlight. He ran toward her, grabbed fistfuls from between her legs. The swiftness of Mari Amman’s payback amazed him. But, as his eyes locked on the gems, he suddenly felt the sticky wetness in his hands.

A guttural cry, like that of an animal from a slaughterhouse, came from behind the hut. Muthu ran out.

Mari Amman stood, a butcher’s knife raised in her hand. The tantric’s body, lying tangled in the bushes, twitched in a final spasm. The blood from his truncated neck kept spraying onto the black idol of Mari Amman, shrouded with moss.

Mari Amman laughs, sweat trickling down her pockmarked face.

“Rubies, can you see…” Muthu opened his palms.

Mari Amman glared for a moment into his hand, smeared in scarlet. She nodded. “Rubies become precious…” She wheezed.

Muthu stared into her eyes.

“Only when they spill from your neck…” She raised her knife, the tantric’s blood still dripping from it.

Muthu squeezed his eyes shut against the fierce glow in her eyes. The feline watched, hair flat against its back, its upraised tail twitching in anticipation, its rosy tongue eager for the taste, as Muthu’s rubies hit Mari Amman’s idol in a scarlet spray.  

Hareendran Kallinkeel writes from Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. His fiction usually tends to be dark and fantastical with some magic realism elements, often portraying racist, fascist, and discriminatory tendencies that still prevail in his social setting in a deceptively subtler form. His recent publications include The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bryant Literary Review of Bryant University, and El Portal of Eastern New Mexico University, among several others. His fiction is forthcoming shortly in 34 Orchard, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Lalitamba Journal. His fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and he is also a finalist of the Best of the Net-2020.