By Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our city. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes, both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear, tenor voice:
"Rags! Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!"
Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her heart was breaking.
The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and diapers.
"Give me your rag," he said so gently, "and I'll give you another."
He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.
Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then he began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.
"This is a wonder," I breathed to myself.
"Rags! Rags! New rags for old!"
In a little while, when the sky showed gray behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.
Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.
"Give me your rag," he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, "and I will give you mine."
The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood--his own!
The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.
"Are you going to work?" he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head.
The ragman pressed him: "Do you have a job?"
"Are you crazy?" sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket-flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.
"So," said the Ragman. "Give me your jacket, and I'll give you mine."
The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman - and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman's arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.
"Go to work," he said.
After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took the blanket and wrapped it around himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.
And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. He was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, falling again and again, exhausted.
I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.
The little old Ragman - he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And, he died.
Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has not hope - because I had come to love the Ragman. I sobbed myself to sleep.
I did not know – how could I know? – that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night too.
But then, on Sunday, I was awakened by a violence.
Light-pure, hard, demanding light-slammed against my sour face, and I blinked. There was the Ragman, folding the blanked most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.
Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: "Dress me."
He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!
From Ragman and Other Cries of Faith by Walter Wangerin Jr. © 1984 Walter Wangerin Jr.