The day Rayber Hogg returned to Harpers, the townspeople thought he was the Angel of Death coming to pick their town clean, and they stoned him to death.
Rayber Hogg was almost forty and had managed to stay away from the small town of Harpers for almost twenty years. Most people around Harpers now would not remember the Hoggs, but those living in the small town then would recall Thelma Hogg as a fat-fisted, red-faced Baptist woman who spoke with the fire of a prophet. Thelma’s husband, Rayber’s daddy, had died when Rayber was a little boy and Thelma did as best she could to raise him, even if she knew that, at his very core, he was full of hormones, lusting after women. She saw evil in everything Rayber did. She could sniff out sin in a smile, they said of her. People liked using phrases like “sniff out,” “bled like a stuck pig,” or “happy as a pig in shit” to describe the Hogg family. This particular last name made them an easy target for ridicule—hog: a giant fat and ugly pig. Once, Rayber, then just a boy, had become so tired of the endless bullying that he pretended he had been adopted by a new stepfather whose last name was Harrison, which Rayber had chosen specifically after seeing it on a baking soda carton and liked that it sounded like snakes on dead leaves. But everyone knew Thelma and Rayber, and everyone knew that Thelma had not remarried, so they started calling him Hogg again after a while.
Thelma knew nothing of Rayber’s return to Harpers: she had not asked him to come back. A neighbor had phoned Rayber and told him the news: “Your mama is dying, Hogg, you best come on back.” And so he had. He had turned in his notice, packed up his one-room apartment over a diner, and returned home. He had no car, so he took the bus instead: nineteen hours in total.
When he arrived back in Harpers, everything looked the same but at the same time felt completely different, it seemed. Quieter, Rayber supposed. More empty. He did not recognize this place yet knew every nook and cranny. He realized he did not remember his old address but could get back there with his eyes closed. By the time he got back into town, he felt run down. He could barely stand, and he felt a headache growing in the middle of his head, and he knew a nosebleed would be next.
Rayber was a very sick man. He was prone to headaches. Day-long, debilitating, nauseating migraines that made his eyes feel like they would soon explode. He had had the headaches since he was young, and even though Thelma had tried to pray the suffering away, convinced the malady was God’s punishment, she covered his windows with thick black sheets and sat up with him almost every other night, soaking his face with a hot wash rag to soothe the boy so he could sleep. The headaches always fried his brain so much that he bled from the nose. Thelma would help him hold wads of cheap white toilet paper under his nose, so he didn’t drip blood all over her bathroom tile and stain the grout; one week, he had ruined several bath towels, which she had had to throw away when even peroxide didn’t work. In addition to the headaches, about a year ago, he had started losing his teeth. He did not know what had caused his teeth to fall out, but he was in constant fear of losing one. They did not fall out one by one, as he would have probably preferred. Instead, they crumbled slowly: he lost pieces of teeth at his desk, bits of molar falling into his coffee, the sharp point of an incisor coming off behind a girl’s ear as he kissed her neck and fiddled with her bra. He had pulled back from the sweaty crook of her neck so fast, with a fist full of teeth and blood pouring from his nose. He had run into the bathroom while she sat there with her bra around her waist. Stress, doctors said. Eliminate the stress, stop losing teeth, doctors said. Bled like a stuck pig.
Once, he made teeth for himself out of clay which he baked and painted at a local college’s pottery kiln, but they looked too fake — bright white like china. He thought about staining them with tea and bringing them along, but he knew that if she uncovered his secret, his mother would crucify him for his vanity.
Upon returning to Harpers, he stopped at Moore’s, which had been around Harpers for almost sixty years, when Eugene Moore and his wife opened a little lunch counter where they wanted to serve her mother’s lemon chiffon pie and Eugene’s uncle’s barbeque. The people of Harpers quibbled over whether that word was spelled “barbeque” or “barbecue.” Mrs. Moore said it was probably French, so what did it matter? Mr. Moore said that his diner was American, so they switched to serving turkey BLTs.
The diner was quiet and largely empty of people. Rayber remembered it being much busier. Now only one other couple was in one of the booths, tucked back near the window. They ate turkey BLTs quietly and did not look at Rayber when he came in. A young girl was behind the counter whom Rayber didn’t recognize, but that didn’t matter. Rayber wanted to see Mr. Moore. He had been Rayber’s football coach back when Rayber had been reasonably successful as a linebacker. Mr. Moore had always patted him on the back after Rayber had won them another game and gloated, “Good old Rayber Hogg!” Rayber was built like a tree then and popular with the girls. Rayber, good-natured and always willing to be in on the joke, now wanted to give Mr. Moore the chance to cajole him about letting his body go to pot.
“Where is everybody,” he said in lieu of a proper greeting.
“It’s the last day of the Reaping Festival,” the girl said, staring at him with a bored expression. She did not ask him for his order; instead, she pointed a chewed-up straw in her mouth at a small sign behind her that said, “Order when ready.”
“How long does that go on?” he replied, picking up a menu. Moore’s still served their classics, but Rayber was not especially hungry. He wanted a pink lemonade. He wanted a bed. He wanted to shave.
“Well,” she answered snidely, “I just said it’s the last day.” She began to gnaw on the opposite end of the straw. “Festival has run all week though and is over for another year, thank the Prophet, so you sure came on a strange day. If you were a crackpot hoping to catch the festival, you’re too late, but if you’re just some dumb tourist from the interstate — “
Some dumb tourist! He was not! He stammered, “Why — why — young lady — I oughta—”
She went on, uninterrupted. “…then you’ll probably wanna get out of Dodge before the freaks come out.” She peered at him out of the corner of her eye. “Didn’t anyone tell you not to come to Harpers during the festival season?”
Rayber had not remembered this festival before. He could recall only the large harvest gathering they held every November.
“I guess you’re new here,” she realized, “so I’ll tell you — ”
He could no longer take her sullenness and stopped her by shaking his fists and screaming at her, “I’m not new here! I’m Rayber Hogg, son of Mrs. Thelma Hogg; I’ve lived here for years. Before your parents were even born, so lose that attitude with me!” Veins in his forehead popped out; his fists turned purple; he got so close to her that he spit in her face.
The young girl was completely bewildered. Her throat turned bright red. Her eyes went glassy, and her face went pale, like a murder victim. “Well, I was just —” Her eyes flicked to his nose.
“Well, don’t, goddamn you! Get me my damned food!” He could not lower his voice as he flung a menu across the counter at her. What right did she have to look at him and assume he was “new here”? The couple in the corner stared at him in horror. Suddenly, they went sick over their milkshakes, and he did not know why until he felt the wetness trickle down his upper lip as if he had to sneeze: blood ran down his face and dripped onto menus and stained napkins and ruined clean water glasses. He covered his face, groping for something to grab onto to stop the blood, but he found only soft skin and damp lips. He shook a fistful of napkins from the silver holder and stuffed them against his nose. Teeth came loose from his mouth, and he began to choke on them, so he spit them into his hand. He looked up at the girl now, blood dribbling from his lips.
At the sight of blood, his hand full of teeth, her eyes widened to look like plates, and she put her hand over her throat and cried, “It’s him!” and she stepped back as if she were expecting him to come hopping across the counter to kill her. “Help me!”
At this moment, an old man, annoyed by the commotion on what he hoped would be a peaceful day, peered out from the kitchen window and saw this crazed man, with wild hair and red eyes and a fistful of teeth and blood running onto his shirt, scratching like a madwoman at the counter, ready to jump the poor girl behind it.
Rayber saw the man instantly and knew he had been saved. Rayber held his hand out. “Mr. Moore! Mr. Moore! it’s me — good old Rayber Hogg!”
Mr. Moore ducked his head back in and charged out of the kitchen a second later, holding a shotgun. “Git! Go on and git! Go on and git, and I won’t have to blow your face off!”
Rayber held up one hand while he struggled to hold his teeth in the other. “Mr. Moore, it’s me — good old — “
“We don’t need the likes of you coming round here, so go back wherever you come from!” He hoisted his shotgun to his eye and shot the clock behind Rayber. The girl screamed. When Rayber looked from the shattered clock to the screaming girl to Mr. Moore, he saw that the old man was aiming at Rayber. “I’ll do it! I’ll blow the rest of you apart!”
He stumbled backwards, fumbling for the door. He murmured to himself, “This is just a misunderstanding, I won’t — ” When he left, the bell jingled as if to wish the girl and Mr. Moore, who stood in his greasy shirt ready to kill good old Rayber Hogg, a cheery goodbye.
With his teeth in his fist, Rayber made his way toward town. Businesses were mostly closed, except for a pharmacy here and a restaurant there. He did not know where the Reaping Festival was taking place, but after a while of wandering, looking for a place to wash his face and change his shirt, he found a poster that identified its location: Town Hall, which was once the home of the first mayor of Harpers who went mad and shot himself and his wife on the lawn. He judged it would be about a ten-minute walk from where he was. He was still clutching his teeth. The blood had dried in a copper brown stain, like shit, across his face.
By the time he arrived at Town Hall, the sun had set. As he drew closer, he heard the soft singing of the festival goers. They were quietly singing in a language Rayber did not speak, and their voices sounded light and thin, like children. As he turned the corner and the crowd came into view, he saw about a dozen people gathered on the lawn, holding candles and wearing white. They looked almost like bowling pins, the giant people of Harpers huddling together with shocks of black and brown hair. He thought it odd: though Harpers had never been a particularly large town, he wondered why this festival was so sparsely attended. Most of the townspeople of Harpers usually had a sense of town spirit.
As for those in attendance, Rayber knew everyone there. He ran to them, his arms outward, a bloodied, near toothless smile across his face. He began to call out their names.
One woman caught sight of him, and horror crept across her face. She pointed at him with a long bony finger, screaming, “My God, it’s him!” Everyone else turned to see the man walking towards them with blood on his face and teeth in his fist.
Rayber was thrilled to see the woman. She was Mrs. Jasper, who taught Rayber the finer arts of piano, painting and Italian. “Miz Jasper, it’s me, good old Rayber Hogg!”
The crowd bumped into each other as they exclaimed, “He has arrived! He has come as he has said!” They moved about in a panic.
Rayber raised his hands. “It’s just me, good old Rayber Hogg!”
They could not hear him: the din of their scattered, terrified voices drowned him out. A small man of about seventy stepped forward, clutching a pregnant girl by the hand. She looked no more than 14. “Angel, whatever you do, don’t harm my honey and her baby! I’m begging you!”
“Mr. Green, it’s me. It’s good old Rayber!” Rayber had wanted to laugh at the man who taught the boys’ Sunday school and who would watch them shower at church camp and had once said to them, “Boys, sex is like a fire. Keep it contained and it can warm you, but let it loose and it can burn down your house” and had put his hand on Rayber’s thigh a lot. He imagined Mr. Green’s old body falling against this young girl.
Mr. Green fell to his knees before the puzzled Rayber. “I’m begging you! Please spare her so that this baby may live!”
Rayber tried wiping his face off so that they could recognize him better. It had been a very long time since Rayber had been in Harpers. His face went soft and smiley as if to say, “See? See? It’s me!”
One man among them spoke: the Hoggs lived next door to Mr. Cooper, and he and Thelma Hogg fought over property lines, chicken coops, and sap dripping onto cars for years. Mr. Cooper’s voice trembled like he had seen a ghost, but he was always the kind of man who spoke up about things when something needed to be said. “The Good Prophet has warned us that the Angel of Death will come to lay waste to our town.” This amused Rayber at first. Rayber had never been fond of men claiming to be prophets and doing the work of an evil being they called the Lord. Who was this charlatan who had led the people to believe this absurd prophecy?
Old Man Cooper continued after Rayber did not respond: “Shit, mister, Good Prophet warned us the Angel would come in the likeness of a man with blood on his face and a fistful of teeth. ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, I shall send you a man from the Lord, and he shall punish you for your iniquities, and after you shall be cleansed!'” The people were all quiet now.
Rayber stared down at his fist, full of broken teeth he had carted around town. Dried blood lined his fingernails and accentuated the half-moons of his cuticles. “And so he has,” he said after a while, thinking about Mr. Moore and the dumb girl he scared, staring up at the townspeople who gathered around him with wide faces while the entire town cooled down several degrees, stricken, like a grave, with an uninterruptable silence. “And so he has,” he said, laughing loudly.
The people of Harpers feared Rayber and pleaded with him to show mercy on them, but Rayber thought they were foolish and told them so. He wanted to go home.
“I don’t want to get lost in any of this foolishness,” he said. “Please, I’ve had a long trip, and I’m trying to find my mother’s house. She is very sick.”
“Who is your mother,” one of them, Mrs. Minnow, who had a face that was wide and white like the inside of cabbage, called out to him.
“You know me, Miz Minnow!” he exclaimed. “I dated your daughter and played ball with Joe, your oldest boy.”
Mrs. Minnow said sharply, almost as a reflex, as if she had met too many people who asked earnestly about her son, “Joe’s been dead now for several years. Blowed up in the war.”
“I sure am sorry to hear that, Mrs. Minnow,” he said softly, thinking of Joe’s handsome face, and he wanted to reach out and take Mrs. Minnow’s hand, but she looked as if she might disappear if he were to touch her.
“After it happened, I begged for you to come take me,” said Mrs. Minnow matter-of-factly. “We had all just survived the plague, and then him dying like he done — it was cruel.” Plague? He searched their faces for an explanation.
It was Old Man Cooper who spoke again: several years before, a plague had swept through Harpers: dead bodies lined the streets, doctors died along with their patients, and the local cemetery found it easier to dig mass graves to bury the corpses that would build up throughout the week; before long, however, the gravediggers died, and they began leaving bodies out in open fields for the buzzards who had already sniffed out the scent and circled hungrily above. During this time, the Good Prophet came to show them the meaning of life. Life was full of tragedy like this, and it was ludicrous, selfish even, to live life so carefree and so sinfully, as Good Prophet had told the people of Harpers they had been doing. The plague, the Good Prophet told them, was a judgment, and it would lay Harpers to waste if they did not repent, so they begged the Lord for mercy. Then, as quickly as the plague had arrived, it disappeared, and the people of Harpers flooded the streets, their cheeks red with the vigor of life.
“Yet Good Prophet, he knows the truth, and he receives it straight from the mouth of God,” Mrs. Minnow stepped forward to say. “And God was pleased that we had repented, yet he told Good Prophet that death would once again return to Harpers to punish the wicked,” she said, her voice turning ominous, her eyes almost turning black, “while the righteous would rise up against death, destroy it, and enjoy eternal life.” This festival commemorated the last of the plague deaths; they observed it, at least as Rayber understood it, to remind themselves of the impending return of the Angel of Death, who would return to judge the wicked of Harpers and pick their town clean: mothers and fathers would be ravaged by illness, babies would die in the womb, pets would curl up and perish underneath hot houses. The festival marked one more year that passed without a man from the Lord, “another year holed up like dogs in cages, waiting for our punishment, waiting to see who lives,” Old Man Cooper said softly, “and who dies.” They all looked as if they were victims of the Medusa, petrified to stone where they stood.
Rayber stepped back, bewildered by this unusual story. “I’m not here to cause you any trouble. I’m just here to find my mother’s house. She’s very ill, you see.”
“Who’s your mama, Angel?” another man, Mr. Walker, spit at him. “Answer, Miz Minnow, Angel, I command you.” Mr. Walker had chased every child from his lawn for the past sixty years. Rayber had lost dozens of baseballs to the thickets of Mr. Walker’s backyard. Rayber and his friends used to try to peer over their fence to watch his pretty young wife, Mrs. Walker, sunbathe, which some said she did without her top on.
“I am Rayber Hogg, Harpers High Class of— M-my mother is Thelma Hogg —”
One of them howled with laughter at this. Mr. Jasper, Mrs. Jasper’s husband, spoke: “Crazy madwoman Hogg is your mother, you say, angel?”
Mrs. Minnow: “What business do you have with madwoman Hogg?”
Rayber took offense to this. “She is no madwoman, and I have no business with her except the business a son has with his mother. She’s very ill, and I need to find her.”
Asked Mrs. Jasper with a raised eyebrow: “And once you see her, you will leave us alone?” Her voice was like a knife.
Rayber promised he would not harm them, which he felt was ludicrous. He had no intention of harming them. He was not a crazed killer or an Angel of Death. He was Rayber Hogg. He was one of them.
They stared at one another and exchanged glances with shifty eyes as though conspiring to hide a body or trade government secrets. “Fine,” a friend of his mother’s, Mrs. Olson, said, stepping forward. She looked at her friends. “We’ll take you to see the madwoman Hogg. And then you will leave us alone.”
The house to which they took Rayber looked nothing like the home where his mother had lived twenty years ago when he stormed out and slammed the door so hard it tore her pictures clean off the wall. He had to make his way in the world, he told her; she was smothering him. He had hated her then. He had hoped she would die.
This house sat by itself on Braidhill Street, which he could not remember ever seeing in Harpers before now. Rayber walked through the gate, staring up at the place, flanked by Mrs. Olson and Mrs. Walker, who had aged but who was still very beautiful; Thelma always said she had married Mr. Walker for his money. The sky was dark now, but the stars shone like a spotlight. The house had a red front door which looked like a garish Christmas decoration against the green siding of the house. He could not remember his mother’s house ever looking this way. The house he remembered, the house he grew up in, was beige with pale blue shutters he had installed for his mother when he was just a boy and had to do all the handiwork around the house after his father died.
“This isn’t it,” he said as he followed them to the front door. “This isn’t my mother’s house!”
“Be quiet,” Mrs. Olson said quickly, opening her purse and fumbling with the keys to the door. They had left everyone else behind them on the lawn so that only Rayber, Mrs. Olson, and Mrs. Walker were on the porch. “Good Prophet wants everything quiet.”
“Who is this Good Prophet madman?” he asked, but no one answered.
He did not ask why Mrs. Olson had keys to his mother’s house, and he did not ask why the house was so damned quiet. Rayber found himself in a poorly lit living room and guessed that a small kitchen lay at the back. Some stairs led up to the second floor. The house was sparsely decorated now, though Rayber could see evidence worn into the carpet where chairs, tables, and sofas had once been but were now gone.
He spun in circles for several moments and finally asked the two women who had accompanied him: “Where is my mother?”
Mrs. Olson spoke: “You’ll know soon enough if you are who you say you are.”
He protested: “I am who I say I am! I’m Rayber Hogg! I demand to see my mother.” He called to the heavens: “Mother! Mother, it’s Rayber come to take you —-” He stopped. Take her where?
Rayber suddenly felt very embarrassed: he had not even been given a chance to clean up before seeing his mother. She would surely shake her finger at him and scream, “Only the Devil’s children lie around in filth!” He asked Mrs. Walker, “Do you mind if I go to the kitchen and clean up before I see her?”
Before she could respond, Rayber heard grunts coming from the floor above them.
Mrs. Walker grabbed Rayber’s face. “Pay no attention to that!” She laughed suddenly, nervously. He looked away from her and up the stairs, and she tried to distract him. He tried to brush her off, but she clung to his shirt. “You’re liable to ruin everything!”
The grunts continued. Then a shrill laugh. “Was that my mother?” he asked, suddenly gripped by anger and pushed past her. She grabbed his arm. He swung back and hit her, throwing her to the floor. “Get off me, you bitch!” She cried out as her head hit the floor and her wig came loose.
He made his way up the stairs. “No! Get away from her!” Mrs. Walker screamed after him.
Mrs. Olson grabbed her arm and helped her up. “Let him see. Let him see what Good Prophet does to those who doubt his word!” He heard her words down the hallway.
At the end of the hallway was a door, which opened up to a small room. Inside the room, his mother Thelma was tied by a single black rope to her bed: one end was fastened around her bruised and dirty foot, and the other end ran to the brass foot of the bed. She couldn’t move very far, and a watering bowl had been kicked out of her reach. Her hair had not been brushed in years. The room reeked of piss and shit. Her mouth was empty of teeth. Her skin was sallow and scarred. Her dress was bloodied.
Rayber noticed her hands: the tips of her fingers were bound tight with cotton and tied with string in intricate knots. “That was done,” Mrs. Olson explained, stepping into the room with Mrs. Walker, “after she had tried to scratch her eyes out.”
As Rayber knelt to loosen the rope around her foot, her face brightened. “Angel, o angel! My husband, the love of my life, has returned!” She reached out for him. “And Eve bore Cain, the usurper, and said unknowingly, ‘Behold! We have received a man from the Lord!’”
His stomach turned at the sight of her, but he tried to speak to her. “No, Mother, it’s me; it’s good old Rayber.” He wanted to leave, to turn around and never come back. He was unable to undo the knot.
Thelma noticed the blood on his face. “Have they killed you too?” He wiped at the blood with an embarrassed flick. “My love!” Thelma exclaimed.
He moved her water closer to her, and she lapped it up like a dog as he tried futilely to untie the knots. Thelma began washing herself, wiping water from her lips and sucking them dry. The women laughed at his attempts.
Thelma grabbed him and looked at him with sudden clarity. “Save yourself, for they torture the soldiers of the Lord in this place!” And, like a medium shaken awake, she left her trance and laughed maniacally in his face, and her breath smelled with the rot of the grave.
Mrs. Walker kicked Thelma in the leg. “Quiet, you.”
Rayber stood and grabbed Mrs. Olson by the arm and pulled her around. He could tell that no man had ever handled her so angrily before. Her thin mouth formed a perfect O. “What is the meaning of this? I want her released at once. She is old and sick!”
Mrs. Olson said viciously, “Old and sick, indeed. Sick in the spirit. Your mother is a madwoman.”
He protested, “She is not!”
Mrs. Walker cried out, “She is a disciple of the Devil. We prayed for her for years, but she refuses to follow the Prophet’s ways!”
Mrs. Olson explained, “We are only following orders.”
Mrs. Walker cried out as though she were entering a trance. “They shall save the Wicked and purify them, and through their mercy, they too shall be purified, so says Good Prophet,” Mrs. Walker recited, quickly, like a schoolboy hammers through the Pledge of Allegiance.
At this, Thelma took a shit on the floor, and the smell of it sickened him instantly. She took a fistful of it, smeared it on her body, and laughed at him. As punishment, Mrs. Olson whispered, Thelma would have to sit in her own shit for two weeks.
Mrs. Olson said wickedly, “And now that you’ve seen her, you will leave us alone. Like you promised.”
“I won’t! Goddamn you, I won’t!” He threatened to call the police and went to leave the room when suddenly the women were on him, grabbing his arms and pulling him from the room. “Unhand me, stupid woman!”
He looked back at his mother as she cowered, covered in shit, in a corner and looked away, hoping she would be submissive enough to avoid punishment. He felt the wrath of her shame. “I am Rayber Hogg, my father —”
One woman — he did not know who — kicked him in the shin so he would be easier to drag. “I want her released at once! I will go to the authorities about this!” he barked, fighting back against the strong women who guided him down the stairs. “Goddamn you all, my mother shall have her vengeance! I shall kill you. I shall kill you all! And your damned false prophet!” His shouts fell unheard into the carpet.
Before he could protest any further, he saw Mrs. Jasper out of the corner of his eye, gliding silently across the room. He noticed the shadows on her face gave it a gray cast, which she said the Italians called chiaroscuro, and she was armed with a vase which she raised with a frail arm and brought down without hesitation on his temple.
When he awoke, Rayber realized that they had been waiting for him. From the moment they saw him, they knew he was the one. Who had drawn him here into this den of scorpions? He was on the lawn of the Town Hall, his hands and feet bound by a black rope. The sun began to rise: the last night of the Reaping Festival was over. The Angel of Death had come, they said. In the likeness of a man. With blood on his face and a fistful of teeth. They surrounded him, forming a circle around him.
Mrs. Walker said disappointedly, clutching her white robes, “You bled all over everything.”
He opened his mouth, and it was wet with blood. More teeth had fallen out, leaving a trail behind them as they carried him. He choked on his teeth. Blood drained down the back of his throat; he could taste it like a handful of pennies; it felt like a balloon caught in his mouth. He said nothing. His head threatened to split open like an egg and greet the sun. His vision went black, like the horses he would ride as a child, their eyes obscured by horse flies, so they would go crazy and drown themselves.
Mrs. Walker recited: “And Good Prophet said that at the end of the thousand years, the righteous in the Lord will rise up against the angel of death and shall drive him from their houses with stones — “
Mrs. Minnow said mournfully, scrubbing the blood out of her dress with a leaf, “People can die in such ugly ways.”
” — and throw him into the lake of fire where he shall burn for six hundred and sixty-seven years, so sayeth Good Prophet, and they that do shall live forever!” She seemed taken by the spirit, and she cried out.
Mrs. Jasper cackled, “And now we shall never die!” And Mrs. Jasper began worshipping the Lord, clasping Mrs. Walker’s hand, and the two began dancing around.
Old Man Cooper stepped in to shush them. “Hush up, old lady!” He readied the hysterical crowd: “Everyone — at once.”
And they, in unison like a gospel choir, covered Rayber’s body with stones, singing songs of praise.