When you arrive on my doorstep, your face will be haggard, dark circles pooling beneath your eyes. I’ll open the door and you’ll reel back as billows of acrid smoke pour into the alley. Then, squinting, you’ll waft the smoke with one hand and try to see me in the sliver of doorway.
“Are you Chanda?” you’ll ask, glancing furtively down the alley, examining every shadow.
I’ll reach out and tap the sign that hangs beside the door. The Smoking Nun, it says, in four different languages. Herbalist, occultist, psychic. There’s even a little painting of me, grinning and wreathed in smoke. I like that picture; it makes me look like a benevolent grandmother.
“I need your help,” you’ll say.
I’ll nod and beckon you inside. You’ll start coughing as soon as the door is closed, overwhelmed by the smoke. I’ll guide you to a seat you can barely see and pour you a cup of tea so hot it steams.
“Drink it,” I’ll command in a voice that sounds like I’m either a heavy smoker or a creature that crawled out of the darkest depths of the sea. “Helps with the smoke.”
You’ll pick up the cup and cradle it in your hands, letting its warmth seep into your skin. You might blow on the liquid for a few seconds before taking a tentative sip. It will be bitter, it’s always bitter, and you’ll make a face. I’ll laugh, with a sound like a drowning man’s last desperate gurgle.
“What kind of nun are you?” you’ll ask, glancing at the unfamiliar religious icons that crowd every surface of my basement apartment. You’ll eye my saffron robes, brow furrowed.
I’ll wave the question away. “You’ve never heard of it.”
“I need your help,” you’ll finally say as I fumble with the hookah. “I’ve been to see priests, rabbis, ministers, even the pagan lady who sells tarot cards. No one can help me. I’m desperate.”
You’ll pause, and when I gesture to continue the rest of the words will tumble out. “There’s a creature following me. I think it’s made of shadows. I know that sounds crazy, but I can see it moving in the darkness. My cat has disappeared. I sleep with the lights on now—but of course, I don’t really sleep, not anymore. It’s not a demon or a golem or an evil spirit….”
“It’s a harbinger,” I’ll rasp.
“Harbinger… of what?” you’ll ask.
“Do you know what a deva is?”
Your eyebrows will draw together in an almost comical expression that is so predictable, I won’t be able to stop myself from laughing again. “No.”
“It’s the Hindu word for deity. God.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
I’ll smile and offer you the hookah’s mouthpiece. You’ll hold up a hand to pass. “If you want my help, you’ll smoke,” I’ll say.
You’ll swallow, and frown, and maybe open your mouth to protest, but in the end your desperation will rule you. It’s just one drag, what harm can it do? You’ll close your lips around the mouthpiece and suck the smoke into your lungs. I’ll do my best to remember what that first taste feels like, the surprisingly sweet flavor of the smoke on my tongue, the lightness spreading through my limbs as the herbs take effect.
“Seeing a harbinger means you’re destined for greatness,” I’ll explain as I get up and make the remaining preparations. You’ll stare at your numb fingers and your pupils will swell. If you’re really lucky, your mouth will fall open and drool will drip down your chin. Meanwhile, I’ll draw circles and lines in chalk on the floor around the table. I have the patterns memorized after so many years, but the lines are probably still mostly intact from the last time, so I’ll need only to trace.
“I don’t understand,” you’ll mumble, shaking your head.
“Don’t worry,” I’ll say, drawing the last few symbols and rising with a groan. My bones are getting old. “This will all be over soon.”
You’ll stare at me, and you’ll notice the chalk in my hand, the dust on my skirt, and your eyes will go to the symbols on the floor. “What is this?” you’ll gasp.
But now it’s too late, of course. If you’ve retained enough motor control to attempt escape, you’ll rise and stumble to the edge of the circle only to find that you can’t leave. Most likely you’ll be too high to stand, though. The herbs are twice as powerful when they’ve been consumed as drink and smoke.
At the end, as I stand over you and begin chanting, you’ll mumble something pathetic, like “You were supposed to help me,” or, my favorite, “Please, god, no.” Ah, irony. Gets me every time.
Each deva is a unique experience. Your energy will taste like absinthe or honey or maybe rosewater. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt much; nobody screams or thrashes anymore thanks to the herbs. You’ll feel very heavy and tired, fall asleep, and never wake again.
Well, not as yourself, anyway. Nothing will remain but shadow, a creature that seeks out slumbering gods. You’ll try to warn them but—and this is my favorite part—you’ll drive them right into my waiting arms, so desperate they’ll drink my tea and smoke my hookah with barely any convincing required.
Once I’m sated, and you’re reduced to a shade, I’ll close all the curtains and return to my original form to bask in your divinity. If you’re truly powerful, it might be days or weeks or even months before I emerge from my cocoon.
I love America. It’s like a buffet for someone like me, a place where people with divine blood can flee those who hunt them, a place where DNA is endlessly combined and recombined to create new gods from no familiar pantheon. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. For I am hungry. Very hungry.
Sarah Hans is an award-winning editor, author and teacher. Sarah’s short stories have appeared in about twenty publications, but she’s best known for her multicultural steampunk anthology Steampunk World. Sarah’s next project is an anthology featuring characters with exceptionalities called Steampunk Universe. You can find Sarah online at http://sarahhans.com/.