contest image OFFERINGS FOR KALI
Phoebe Kate Foster

Singh works as a maintenance man in a fashionable department store, creating and uncreating the world contained on its twelve floors. He dismantles the displays that come and go with the seasons and fashions, and erects new ones that will soon be gone as well.

It's boring, but in a strange way, meaningful.

Today, he replaces the psychedelic wallpaper in junior dresses with mirrors the color of starless night -- like the skin of the goddess Kali, she who is both Mother and Destroyer.

In the dark glass, his brown-fleshed reflection appears almost charred. It reminds him of the corpses in his village's cremation ground, where amidst the fires of the pyres, flying ashes and swirling smoke, he and other devotees worshiped the Terrible Divine Mother --

Kali -- in whom is death and life.

Kali -- who is the power of time that devours all.

Singh is thousands of miles from home. He hasn't heard from his family since the recent floods there. There's no information about survivors. He knows that there was little of earthly significance to wash away, just miserable lives in makeshift dwellings that disappear as easily as if they'd never been at all, quickly replaced by more of the same.

When Singh leaves for the day, he stops by the display department as usual. LaTesha is stuffing a mannequin into a dress.

"Two today," she says, handing him a package. "Yours, of course. And one for me." Her eyes are doleful. "My brother. The HIV test was positive."

He takes the bus downtown and threads through streets cluttered with open-air markets and shops with bins of garish merchandise spilling onto the pavement. All around are unbelongers like himself, drawn here from every land. As they rummage through racks and sales tables, the babble of many languages rises like incense to heaven.

Juanita Rodriguez waits outside her dress shop for Singh. "Soon Lee's wife is sick. Mr. DeAngelo lost his job. Mrs. Popielska -- " she indicates an old woman in a lumpy jacket, covering her face with her hand, "her granddaughter ran away. And you already know my woes." Juanita sighs and gives Singh several parcels.

In the small room where he lives, Singh lights the many candles on his little altar and kneels before the intricately carved statue of Kali.

Kali with the skin like midnight.

Kali with the wild hair of boundless freedom.

Kali with the girdle of innumerable severed arms around her waist.

Kali with the garland of fifty skulls around her neck.

Kali with the three eyes, always seeing.

Kali with the four arms, extended to bless or destroy.

But with only two legs.

Singh unwraps the parcels he has brought home and adds the mannequins' shapely limbs to the pile of plastic legs surrounding his altar. Legs in fishnet stockings. Purple hose. Knee socks. Or wearing high-heeled shoes.

"More legs for you, Divine Mother," he whispers, staring at the statue. "Have mercy on your desperate children."

And then he prays.