There are rats inside the Temple.
Yes. Nasty, disgustin’ devils with tails like the ropes fishermen lash around the docks in Kingston Harbour. We’re settin’ traps tonight. Glue traps blessed by Elder Riley. My husband prophesied of this. Yes. Elder Riley said Hell would send forth devils in disguise to make us abandon our last stand before we take leave of the Earth. Elder Riley said Those That Remain must have the patience of the saints, until the Day the Portal Appears. Rats will be the Final Plague.
My sister says Elder Riley is full of shit.
“Is the leftover bully beef and boil banana in the garbage outside, why rat swarm de place!”
My younger sister might be among us, but she’s not one of us. Growing up, Renae was the rebel, the “sinner”, as my mother—God rest her soul—put it. Renae Richie was the one to follow fashion, to pierce anywhere on her body that could hang jewelry. The dancehall sound system is her god, the selector is her preacher. She sacrificed her soul on the altar of drum and bass and dirty lyrics litter her mind. She is only here on lockdown with Those That Remain because the worldwide plague has descended on Jamaica as Elder Riley prophesied. But she won’t be here long. My husband said there must be another Falling Away before the Day the Portal Appears.
Renae will fall away from us, just like all the others. She is twenty-four this year. Maxine Richie’s last breath begged me to take care of my little sister. Your whole life on Earth can be about protecting your family especially if your father was a drunkard who only brought home quick fists. I wish I could drag Renae kickin’ and screaming through the Gates of Heaven to meet our mother again. But my little sister is going to Hell. I know this now—and my pain must be flushed away by many tears.
But as for me, these past seven months quarantined in the TTR Temple on Windward Road have been a blessing. My husband and I are ready to ascend. I cannot speak for the other five. Elder Riley said some will see the Great Portal appear and at the very Gates of Heaven, they will scatter like rats do when you switch on the kitchen light.
“Pass the last one, Renae.”
She slid the trap from inside the box, careful not to get the glue on her fingers.
“You’re right,” she said. “This is the last trap I goin’ set. This is damn nastiness now, Elaine. We need to call Pest Control, or leave—”
“Anyt’ing nastier than the music you listen to Renae? If Elder find your phone with all the nastiness—”
She folded her arms and looked me in the eye. “What? Then I goin’ have to leave? I want to leave.”
I lowered my voice and tried again.
“We are safe inside the Temple, Renae. People gettin’ sick. This plague is spreadin’ all over the world, like Elder Riley prophesied. If it wasn’t for the Great Portal takin’ us away from here, one day we would wake up and see everybody dead. We are still alive because of him.”
Sea breeze swooped in through the kitchen window. I hugged my sister and tried to make my voice softer.
“Renae, you don’t feel how the breeze blowin’ different? This breeze is bringing the Portal closer every day. Any day now, we will see the Gates of Heaven open over Kingston Harbour. Look outside. Elder Riley said when the Poinciana tree shoot blossoms in the summer, then the time of harvest is near. Why you so stubborn? Don’t you want to leave this pandemic behind?”
She wrestled out of the hug and looked me in the eye with that expression she would wear when Mama used to strap her backside—that unflinching, unrepentant jawline the years could never loosen.
“You’re a damn eediat, Elaine Riley. We soon get sick from rat piss or from too much bully beef and banana. Then we goin’ know who stubborn, me or you. Why we don’t order some sweet and sour pork from Gong Chao later when Elder gone sleep? One servin’ can feed two people—”
“Get behind me, Satan.”
Renae is wicked. She knows I love Gong Chao Chinese food.
She smiled, yanked at the door and stepped out into what used to be the church parking lot, now surrounded by zinc sheets to keep out the heathen. A flickerin’ street lamp turned her into a shadow every few seconds. Rats crawled out of the garbage and burrowed back in, draggin’ long tails behind them.
Seven months ago, the parking lot was populated by people instead of devils. Seven months ago, a hundred saints packed our church on Windward Road. They would hang around after the service to talk about family and food. But they fell away. Their faith weakened as soon as Elder Riley told them about the Man in the Sky-Blue Suit—yes—the man we met in Coronation Market, well-dressed among the stalls, like he was goin’ to a wedding and lost his way.
Elder Riley went to get avocado. He says the Man in the Sky-Blue Suit followed him and told him to get ready for the Great Banquet and bring only the best fruits. “You can tell what is rotten from what is ripe by shakin’ them.” So Elder Riley shook up the church with the prophecy. Rotten fruits fell out of the congregation after every sermon. Renae had been the first to mock and jeer. She said Elder Riley should prophesy the numbers for the Pick 3 Lottery Game so she could win some money. I rebuked her.
“That’s all you think about…vanity.”
“Not true. I think about sex too. And Netflix. Seven months now. Speaking of which…it’s a shame Moses never rise up the rod and gimme a little nephew.”
“Well, maybe it’s not Moses’ call. Maybe the Red Sea not partin’ anymore, Renae.”
“What? You and Elder don’t —?”
She jabbed her index finger into the tight fist she made with her other hand.
“You need to listen when the man preachin’, Renae. The time of the flesh has passed. We live now only for consummation of the Spirit. In the next life, there will be no marriage or pleasures of the flesh. The Scripture says Those That Remain shall be quickly changed from flesh to spirit.”
“Heh! Listen, Elaine. Don’t be a damn fool. More pussy running ‘round this place than rat, you hear me? Elder Riley—”
I had slapped Renae across the face and made her swallow the rest of the sentence. And the look she gave me told me one day she would leave. I blame myself sometimes, but she deserved it for insulting a man of God. Our father was the opposite of Elder Riley, she should not confuse the two.
I remembered all this while watchin’ my sister pick her way around the corned beef tins in the garbage, tryin’ to decide where to dispose of the traps full of bodies. But like those demons in the pigs in the New Testament, I could tell that the evil spirits had already gone into other rats, rats ready to once again invade our Temple.
Two of them dashed from under the heap, eyes glowing green as they raced to the door. My faith failed. I ran back into the kitchen, turning just in time to see the glue traps grab them. One had been caught by the head, hallelujah. The other one scampered along the edges of the trap and finally got one leg and its backside stuck in the trap, praise God. Glue is greedy. I watched them squeal and twist and turn, devil-tails whippin’ all over the place. Renae walked in from the parking lot with a brick and bashed in their heads without flinching. She wrapped the bloody brick and the traps in newspaper and walked back out to become a shadow again.
Elder Riley has set the date. The Poinciana tree has long put forth blazing blossoms, so today’s sermon is his last on Earth. In the Temple, we have seats like a stadium because in his wisdom, my husband purchased one of the old movie theatres on Windward Road and turned it into a church. The rows in which sinners sat are now purified and only righteousness flows from where evil was once displayed on-screen. Since the Falling Away the offices have been divided into living quarters for the saints. We have been quarantined from the sins of the world long before the pandemic hit.
What used to be the lobby is now Elder’s vestry and our adjoining bedroom. One tiny bathroom has been reserved for disciplinary confinement. Renae was confined there for two days after Elder Riley found her cell phone with disgusting dance videos from TikTok. My husband is merciful. He is still trying to save her soul.
I am excited—and anxious—about the Day the Portal Appears. I fear for my sister. Disciplinary confinement will not stop her from turning back from the Gates of Glory. All seven of Those That Remain are in the Temple. Off to my right, Brother and Sister Jeffrey—the only other married couple, are lifting their hands to the ceiling weepin’ tears of joy as Elder speaks. Behind them is Cabbie, a taxi driver. My husband says Cabbie is like Simon Peter—the first to believe. Cabbie can leave and run errands for TTR in his taxi. Elder can trust a true believer to return to Temple.
The young woman down front, writing the words of the prophet is Shernette Parish. Shernette walked away from her degree programme at university to be with TTR. On August 29, her graduation will be into Life Eternal with the rest of us. Shernette visits Elder in his room to write down his instructions from God. She is a diligent disciple whom Heaven has chosen to remind us about the Seven Prophecies on the timeline to Glory. When the saints get weary, Shernette reminds us about the Man in the Sky-Blue Suit, the Shaking of the Fruits, and the Falling Away. She reminds us of Elder Riley’s predictions of the Worldwide Pandemic, the Plague of Dust from the Sahara, the Ring around The Sun and the Plague of Rodents. Elder Riley stands before us, describing the Final Prophecy.
“We will go out on August 28, and at the stroke of midnight, Those That Remain shall stand still and see the salvation of the Most High. For behold over the sea, shall clouds appear, curdling like milk. And these clouds shall come down low, almost touching the waves of Kingston Harbour. Then from the midst of them shall a whirlwind appear, and upon the waters of the harbour shall yet another be born. And the two shall meet to form a waterspout. And it shall be a tunnel between heaven and earth. And this tunnel shall be the Portal through which we shall be taken into Glory. Be ready! Do not fear. Those that wish to be caught up will have no worldly possessions, and shall enter the Gates wearing only their Robes of Righteousness. This Portal is like a hurricane. Therefore, all who wish to ascend will consume only canned food and green bananas. Fast food and Gong Chao will keep you stuck to the Earth!”
My husband can read minds. He knows what can lead me astray. He openly rebukes the things that tempt me. I accept his leading and I let go. Renae—not so much. During this blessed benediction, while the saints shout glory and cry sweet tears, my sister is lookin’ at the floor, her mouth in a smirk, her heart hard like her jawline. Later she will tell me:
“Only Shernette panty fallin’ away. Only Shernette fruits gettin’ shaken at the stroke of midnight. Listen back to the whole prophecy in your head, Elaine. Your bedroom is Heaven’s Gates and your husband’s big waterspout parting the sea.”
We will have a big fight in the parking lot when everyone is asleep. Enough is enough.
In less than a week we will be with the Hosts of Heaven. We are washing the Robes of Righteousness today. Cabbie takes me to Spic-n-Span Laundromat on Lady Musgrave Road. Elder Riley said the Robes of Righteousness must be washed seven times. This cannot be done by hand in the time we have left, so we need help from the heathen. The laundromat lady hands me 28 tokens.
“Choir uniforms”, Cabbie says, answering a question she never asked. She collects the wad of cash. Her facemask does not hide the smirk. Cabbie turned to me.
“I have to go pay de fisherman.”
Across the room a man gets curious. A muffled remark comes through his face mask.
“What a whole heap you washin’!”
“Yes. Takin’ a little trip.”
“Carry me wid you nuh?”
And I laugh at this poor man tryin’ to flirt with a woman who no longer has any interest in things of the Earth. And a breeze passes through the laundromat, and in it is a promise that all the new apartment buildings in New Kingston are no match for what is waitin’ for me beyond the sky. I remember wanting to be a nurse somewhere overseas like New York City. I remember wanting a house in Mandeville. But all that is over now. I have a mansion somewhere higher than Beverly Hills. My husband sold the properties we owned on the Earth and has given most of our money to the poor.
Somewhere during the spin-cycles, I rest my head on a table and fall asleep to the rhythm of the machines. My mother appears in a dream. Her face glows and she smells like jasmine and rain. She hugs me and asks how I got my robe so clean. I say Spic-n-Span and we laugh and hug each other in a room with a long banquet table of white marble, where pink clouds cover the floor and roses bloom in fast forward. She asks for Renae, and I wake up cryin’.
The machines have stopped. The laundromat lady folded the robes and put them in a laundry cart. Cabbie is outside leaning against the car. Old people have a permanent knit in their brow, but this is different.
“Renae gone, Elaine. She leave de Temple.”
Those That Remain have been up since four o’clock. We have much to do on our last day on Earth. We must cleanse the Temple. Elder Riley says we must dump all our food into the trash as an Act of Faith. We must throw out the bully beef and bananas. Our next meal is milk and honey. We must throw out the beds, the stove, the fridge and all our clothes into the parking lot. We do as he says, and we wait.
Fifteen minutes to midnight. I am happy. I have let go of the hope that Renae will rush in, sayin’ she wouldn’t miss this for the world. The heathen hate righteousness. Elder Riley walks the corridor, softly knockin’ on doors.
“Time, saints, time.”
We gather in the theatre in our sky-blue robes. The men are not shaven, and we women have plaited each other’s hair into halo braids—like crowns. Shernette hands out palm branches as we walk out to Cabbie’s Toyota Probox. The engine hums, and the crickets keep time with our steps. Stars call out to us from the Milky Way. There’s no cloud in the night sky, but we are not worried. Ours will arrive on time.
Six barefooted saints pull up to the sea in a taxicab. The wind is wicked. Our palm branches get shredded, and our robes are already soaked. Over at the airport, a jet plane touches down, red light flashin’. The fisherman is impatient. He wants more money.
“Curfew time now! Pastor shoulda do this before six o’clock!”
Cabbie says he will pay the fisherman more money “tomorrow” and we all laugh as the boat moves out. I take a last look at Kingston’s lights. Up ahead, a long dark cloud rolls toward us. I feel a spark of joy in my belly, like the blue lightning bursting inside the cloud. We break into song and the fisherman gets even more annoyed. He doesn’t understand our jokes, or why a choir would want to go out in a storm, but he’s all about the money. Money makes people do anything.
The Cloud of Glory comes down low. It is not of this world. All the dark waves now wear a white crown. Sea spray leaps into the boat and Brother and Sister Jeffrey shout hallelujah. Shernette rocks back and forth and prays while holding on to the side. Elder Riley is up front, his arms raised, shoutin’ above the thunder.
“Stand still and see the salvation!”
We ride below the storm cloud. Elder Riley tells the fisherman to cut the engine and the sea becomes a sticky mass. We wait for the Portal. Maybe it’s the tears in our eyes or we are too busy watchin’ the sky. But nobody sees the massive boat full of guns comin’ up behind us.
Bright lights. Loudspeakers. The Coast Guard is brutal in a curfew. The saints are curled up on rough wooden benches, wearing handcuffs. Shernette weeps while they question Elder Riley inside the police station. He allows them to think we are crazy, because saying “we were supposed to be picked up” sounds like human trafficking in the ears of the heathen.
The night is long. We are released when the sun blazes up over the edge of the Earth. The light burns my eyes. Cabbie takes the backroads. An hour later, I am naked and thirsty and hungry and tired, staring through a tiny bathroom window at the clothes and the fridge and the beds we threw into the garbage. Our Robes hang on the clothesline like spirits that left their bodies behind.
Disciplinary confinement is worse than I could imagine. Elder Riley says I let a rat into the Temple. He says Renae knew the date of Ascension. Renae called the Coast Guard. This sinner would not have been among the saints if it weren’t for me. Renae is the reason we are still stuck on Earth. We will have to fast and pray and set another date for Ascension because of her.
The worst thing about disciplinary confinement is not sleepin’ naked on the bathroom floor or getting only room temperature water to sip for three days. It’s having to face my sister’s betrayal. That and the smell of a dozen dead rats outside under the sun. I cry out to Elder Riley and the saints for two days but nobody comes to save me. Maybe I am beyond forgiveness. I wake up on the third night, sick from the stench. My mother’s face is over me. But she looks more like Renae. It is Renae. Sweet Renae surrounded by people in uniform. She puts the sky-blue robe that was supposed to be hers over my naked body.
Police break down the doors and the saints are gone. The saints went up into the cloud without me. But the news says different. A fishing boat went down in the harbour and all on board are lost at sea. Social media says maybe they preferred to drown in saltwater than in shame. Social media says you need to have money and a rocket like Richard Branson to go to space. Social media says there was a fight at sea over money and a fisherman dropped off some people who wouldn’t pay the fare.
But after nine months there are still no bodies—no Elder Riley, no Cabbie, no Brother or Sister Jeffrey, no Shernette Parish. Only five sky-blue gowns came ashore, each one washing up in a different place along the Jamaican south coast, spread far and wide as if they fell from a great height or got scattered by a whirlwind.
My sister and I live in Mandeville now. My husband had a will and a million secrets. I am in need of nothing. The cupboards in the white marble kitchen are full of everything except for bully beef. A new Gong Chao Restaurant just opened in Mandeville plaza. Renae had a baby. Her child looks like Elder Riley. I will teach my nephew his ABCs, and perhaps he will teach me about forgiveness. Maybe family is stronger than faith.
The course I started at the university might make me a nurse in New York someday. Or maybe every summer, when the Poinciana tree blazes red and the clouds come over Mandeville, I will get into Renae’s gown, walk out to the balcony and wait.
Roland Watson-Grant is a Jamaican novelist, screenwriter and travel writer. His first novel Sketcher (2013) was published by Alma Books (UK) and has been translated into Turkish and Spanish. Roland was shortlisted for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He is a 2018 recipient of a Musgrave Award for Literature in his home country and his non-fiction work has been archived by the Smithsonian Libraries. In 2021 he won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Caribbean Region.