Once there was a cat as yellow as the sun.
Her eyes glittered and sparkled like lanterns in the night.
The priests fed her outside Bastet's temple at noon, then again at twilight, when the slanting sun rays turned the Egyptian desert into rose-coloured sugar.
At that time of the day, it was sweet to linger on the threshold of the temple, watch the desert become softer and mysterious and imagine the peasants as they stopped working along the banks of the Nile.
The Pharaoh too was far away and Nefris, the youngest postulant to train as a priest, could rest a little with the yellow cat.
She came for him. She would stop by his side, as he sat on the ground, lost in his longings.
One evening like any other, the cat meowed and scratched her back against the door of the temple.
Nefris paid attention. She jumped ahead, turning around to see if he was following her.
He stood up and strode in her direction, down the path that led outside the sacred precincts of the temple, till they came into an eery, open plain, where silence was roaring.
The cat swung to and fro gingerly, and then stopped in front of a black stone.
Nefris read aloud the geroglyphs without understanding.
"What are you trying to tell me?" -- he asked the yellow cat.
She sat on her haunches silently, as if she intended to wait.
Nefris sat down too. The moon had come out and looked like a silver disk.
Little by little, the yellow cat grew bigger and in the silvery moonlight became shapeless at first. Then it took on a human shape.
There she was: the goddess Bastet in all her majesty.
Nefris knelt down in sacred awe.
Bastet smiled her feline way and whispered in her ancient language words so sweet that Nefris was wrapped up in enchanted mystery.
The goddess' eyes sparkled like tongues of liquid fire.
That night, Nefris did not go back to the temple.
The goddess took his hand and led him far away, across the desert and beyond.
No stone temple would ever satisfy him again.
He became a hermit, out of a love so pure that his gaze burnt bright, lit by an inner fire.
He crossed the desert unscathed, heading South, where the local people welcomed him in their tents and honoured the clear-eyed wisdom he displayed when his counsel was asked for.
When the patriarch of the tribe offered him his own daughter in marriage, Nefris could not and would not betray his divine Beloved.
At dawn he left the settlement, heading East and resumed his life as a wandering hermit in honour of Bastet.
In every village, he would counsel and heal for a few bread crusts. Then he shared the little he had with the stray cats that followed him wherever he went.
He died well into his nineties, clear-eyed as ever, one cold night the wind swept the land and cleared the sky.
It is said that stray cats sat all around his body, keeping vigil till in the morning a young shepherd found him.
If you ever get lost, off the tourist tracks, in the innermost part of Egypt, you may come to the place where he died, in an open space where the wanderers still honour his spirit with offerings at the feet of his statue.
His spirit may protect you from harm, if you trust in the power of devotion and unswerving love.