Akalem raised his knife above the goat. It looked at him with its square pupils as if it knew what was going to happen. Maybe the ropes around its legs were a clue.
The other priests – the older priests – broke into a loud hum. Akalem’s empty stomach churned, reacting to the heavy vibration in the air. He glanced, sluggishly, down the steps to the next layer of the ziggurat. There was no-one and nothing there, except for a little dust blowing in the evening breeze.
‘There are the gods,’ said the high priest, ‘who are to men as men are to termites. Their king is Enlil, the father of Nanna and Ninurta and Nisaba, husband to Ninlil. Nanna rules the moon; Ninurta rules the field of war; Nisaba blesses the grain-field. It was King Enlil who ordered the creation of man, which he has had occasion to regret.’
The hum of the priests increased in volume. Akalem’s arms were shaking. The goat bleated; the air was wavering.
’The gods live in their city Nippur, which no mortal may set foot in. Above Nippur, above the dome of the sky, within the ocean of chaos, lives An, who could destroy all the cities of man with a flick of his wrist.
‘But we are not here to look to the sky, initiate. Your knife is sharp. Commence.’
Akalem started by slitting the goat’s throat. He hugged it tight as it bucked and twisted and fell still; then he set to work, cutting off its skin. He shucked off his loin-cloth and rubbed himself all over in blood – not an inch of skin could be left bare if he was to survive the descent – and sunk his teeth into raw, rough flesh.
He hadn’t eaten in two days; Akalem ate quickly, peeling muscle from bone with his knife, eating from all parts of the goat’s corpse, including its face, until he was full. He felt sick. The hum got louder.
Akalem stood, leaving the knife on the ground, and faced the high priest.
‘Speak your name.’
Akalem opened his mouth, but his throat was full of goat-blood and bile. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t speak. The high priest nodded and turned, and the initiate followed.
They walked down the steps to the second level of the ziggurat, and from there to the point where the three stairways met. The initiate turned to his left.
‘The servant’s stairway,’ said the high priest. The initiate turned right, to look down the middle stairway, looking at the setting sun.
‘The priest’s stairway,’ said the high priest. The initiate turned again.
‘The guard’s stairway,’ said the high priest. The initiate turned again.
‘Lord Nergal’s stairway,’ said the high priest, and it was: where the bulk of the ziggurat should have been, there was only another set of stairs, heading down into the ground and below the ground. ‘Go to the god of the dead, and beg him for a new name.’
Head spinning, nostrils filled with gore, ears burning with the rumble of unseen priests’ hum, eyes stinging with goat-blood, stomach churning with goat-flesh and legs trembling, the initiate began his descent below the earth.