The first time I saw a priesting, I was ten, and it was my older sister to be chosen.
The priests bustled into our home, and when my mother did not reprimand their rudeness, I knew she must have known to expect them. Her lips were sewn tight and thin to her dark face as she watched the young men usher my sister up from her seat, press a roll of fabric into her confused hands, and drape a flowing robe about her shoulders.
The robe was white, a blank canvas, a piece of purity from the gods. My sister froze for just a moment, stunned, but when the men soundlessly tugged on her to follow them, she moved her bare feet over the sand-dusted floor, and she left us in the night.
Two days later, her priesting was held; a rush, such a rush, when most candidates were given weeks to prepare. Some gods are demanding and impatient, the children of the priests say– the priests themselves would never utter such a remark. But it’s true; some who are chosen have no time to say goodbye to their lives. We, the people who remain unchosen, can guess and bet which god will step up to claim a person by how that person is taken and prepared.
I watched, clutching my mother’s hand, my head and face wrapped in fine linen to shield me from the midday sun. That, too, was a clue – the time of day of the priesting. Some gods would not come at night; others would only come then. For my sister, it was noon in the peak of the dry season, and everyone sweated, and the sand burned us from beneath our thin sandals.
My sister stood alone before an empty granite throne, half again the size that any human being would require, clothed in her whites, only the tips of her fingers and her long-lashed eyes visible beyond the folds. We had her back, her little family, her mother and her little brother, holding tight to each other; I pretended my mother needed me as much as I needed her in that moment, but I knew her legs were as strong as the sycamore and her eyes as bright as stars, and she would stand alone behind her daughter in the face of God if she had to.
A pair of priests stood, several arms away, on my sister’s left; another pair stood to her right. With them, we formed a neat semi-circle, all facing the empty throne. I remember staring hard at the priests’ robes, trying to muddle through the color patterns and symbols emblazoned on the cloth, my youthful mind straining to remember which gods went to which colors. I wanted a clue to the god who would claim my sister. I wanted to know.
I didn’t have time to figure it out, if I could have at all. The very air around us seemed to straighten, like a spine extending, and then there came a bolt of sunlight from above, glowing so fiercely golden that I thought my sister would catch fire. She arched her back, head thrown backward, her headwrap partially unraveling; it waved eagerly in the sudden wind that spun sand around her.
The light was too much for me, and to this day, I regret raising my arm to shield my face. When I next saw my sister, her flawless ebony skin had turned molten gold like the sun, and her eyes were the staring eyes of a falcon.
“Daughter of Heru-hekenu!” the priests shouted in ragged unison, blinking away sunspots from their eyes.
“I accept,” my sister said in the loudest whisper I have ever heard. And there, in the space between my terrified breaths, her white robes left her body along with her humanity, and she lifted herself aloft on shining wings.
Seven years later, I was informed that I, too, was chosen. I could not help but look to my mother, who would lose both of her children to the priesthood and be left alone; her eyes were strained, but she nodded. The priests did not lead me from our home; in fact, it would be nearly six more weeks before my priesting would occur. I spent the intervening time learning priestly duties, studying the religious arts, and taking long meditation baths. I had no idea which god wanted me, but I narrowly avoided cursing them aloud in front of the priests.
I did not want to leave my mother. I did not want to join my sister in the ranks of the robed, those transformed by their gods into something other than– more than– human. I did not want to give up my budding craftsmanship, my work in wood and clay, my growing love for a young woman who was the daughter of the man teaching me my craft. I wanted nothing to do with the white robes that shrouded me like glowing shadows.
I thought of running away, but that would solve nothing; I couldn’t run back to my life any more than I could escape a god. I stayed, and I meditated in the cool waters, and I learned stories of our gods that I had never before imagined. As a student of their lore, I began to feel a strange kinship for the gods, almost a familial fondness, as though all of their living were somehow understandable by a young man like me. I never trusted that feeling.
My priesting was held just after sunset, in front of the same vacant throne that every priesting faces. The breeze was cool, the sand still warm, and I lifted my face to the emerging stars as two pairs of priests took their places on either side of me.
This time, I knew what their robes meant. One of them was my sister, in her warm yellow robes and black letters that spelled out one of her god’s many epithets. Across from her was another of Heru-hekenu’s priests, but I knew I was not to be claimed by the falcon-god myself; he only took priests in strong daylight.
The other two priests belonged to the lady Nut, goddess of the stars and the dead, whose great body stretched over us as the night sky. I wondered if I would be hers and suppressed a shudder at the thought of tending to so many funerary rites and fresh corpses.
My mother stood behind me, alone in the face of God, and I could feel her strength radiating across the space between us and soaking into my spine. Whether I willed my path or not, I would make her proud with my carriage, and I held my head high as I waited. The wind sang softly to me, cooling my skin, ruffling my headwrap.
I cannot describe what happened next with any eloquence or accuracy: The space before me opened up like a rift between wind and sky and sand, and I stared into a blackness the likes of which I have never known. The darkness yawned before me, a gulf reaching for my toes, consuming sand grain by grain until it could pull me in.
I saw a single point of light in the eclipse, and then a twin, and they became eyes as a great cat made of shadow stepped out of the abyss and, no sooner than it had a recognizable shape, it dissolved to wrap me in wind and dusk.
The arms of my god were warm and dark, and my heart felt like it would bleed like ripe fruit under the pressure of her embrace. I felt more than heard the priests around me cry out, identifying me as the son of this god that had come from primordial darkness to encircle me, but I did not hear her name.
All of me was dissolving, dross draining from the pith of my very being; I was liquid metal to be reforged, steaming and weak-kneed. “I accept,” I breathed, unable to hear my voice for the wind in my ears and the pounding of my terrified, ecstatic heart.
I saw her eyes again, glowing green and slit-pupiled, as she bent to sweep my headwrap aside and kiss my forehead.
Very good, she whispered to me with a smile, and under her lantern-bright gaze, all my human trappings fell away and left me with only my marrow and the lightlessness under my skin.
When I next felt the sand, it was crunching beneath my padded paws, and I could feel my god’s presence all around me, saturating my glossy fur. I tasted life on the desert wind and saw through the twilight as though it were midday, and when I heard my mother crying, I knew in my heart that she shed joyful tears.
Golden light erupted from my left, and my sister left her sunlight-robes behind as she became her god’s theophany, the falcon. Our eyes met, sun-bound raptor to night-born cat, and we knew each other then.
Together, her winds as strong in the wind as my paws were on the dunes, we raced each other toward the temple.
[Full credit to my sister for sharing her dream, which became the seed of inspiration for this story!]