Midway through a protracted conversation at an almost pitch black bar, I caught Hermia slipping out of a business man seated in the corner. Her reality dim but brighter around the edges, she slinked her way through the room and slipped into my conversation partner head-first. She is impossible to spot when switching skins, but my eyes are attuned to that ancient frequency, and so I smiled. I spent the next three months following her from body to body, creating new reasons to insert myself into her host’s life and tease out her separate identity. On the 79th day, in flight halfway across an ocean, I slipped. It was a tiny error, a small discrepancy – but that was enough. Hermia dropped out of her host’s body at 34,000 feet in the air and I lost her. But I had my research. I let her go.
Hermia is the female principle. Whether she is a single entity, or ten thousand spirits with a shared mind is unknown. She wafts back and forth through throngs of bodies, flitting through history on the backs of soldiers, poets and dictators. Some have described her as a wild nymph full of reckless abandon, instigating wars and riots through the mouths of others. Others say that she works with clinical precision, methodically mending civilization through an endless game of human chess only she can fathom.
No one is sure how or why she picks her hosts. There are those that history has made obvious: Chuang Tzu, Ponce de Leon, Nefertiti. But for every obvious one there are thirty that cannot be so easily explained. A dying baby, a third world prostitute, a middle manager in a windowless corporate office. Does she pick them spontaneously, out of curiosity or boredom – or is she constantly nudging the world in or out of darkness? Of the handful that have studied her, none can make a conclusive argument in either direction.
Desperate for answers, I cornered her hosts after she left them, interrogating them with a series of questions they must have thought mad. The third one was most forthcoming. A twentysomething artist with stars in his eyes, he noticed the change most acutely – its coming and going within the span of a week. Posturing as his therapist, I was spared no detail.
He described it as a creative famishing that possessed him – a galactic desperation so malignant he nearly visited an exorcist to remove it. His desire spilled off of the canvas and became an ungodly thirst for women, for power, for fame. His desire was unsexed, metastatic. And his dreams were primordial and inhuman, of a planet he barely recognized as his own.
The sixth host had a very different report. An architect, she felt a Gaiac calm settle over her one morning, a placid focus that gave her lucidity – an awakening to purpose. She shed her life and went to the desert, building a clay city for an unknown humanoid species – preparing for what, she did not know. Once the city was finished she awoke feeling a stark emptiness. She wasted no time wandering into the desert seeking death. I met her there and her gaze gave me cosmic anxiety. Barely human, she spoke her last words in a hybrid language, English mixed with an alien tongue.
Playing my role as a researcher, I developed a systematic process to chart similarities and note differences in each of Hermia’s subjects during and after her possession. As I followed her across the country, I carried notes that I would arrange on each hotel’s wall, connecting strands of evidence to try and bring me to a grand unified theory of her separate identity. But mapping out her shared traits brought me farther from my goal, obfuscated her essence more with each new host. Frustrated one night as I shared an overnight train cabin with her ninth host, she suddenly appeared before me as I lay on the top bunk.
Keeping my eyes half-lidded and seemingly unfocused and unaware of her, I watched her study me slowly. She brushed her fingers across my face and arms, brought her eyes within centimeters of mine and peered deeply inside me. There were a few moments of consideration – and here for the first time I noticed that her face was expressive, her lips curled in a smile that was both godlike in its calmness and slightly sneering and venomous. Then she settled herself on top of me, and I felt a million icy feathers turn into daggers, pressing into my skin, almost to the point of puncturing it.
Her host stirred and she leapt up from me and was immediately inhaled by him. It took me a long time to fall asleep that night, and it was years before I dreamed again.
Illustration by Pedro Tapa