I SAW a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing my life had ever prepared me for. Hush, child. Hush, now, and I will tell it to you.
Even before the dawn one Friday morning, I noticed a young man 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!”
“Now, this is a wonder,” I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four and his arms were like tree limbs and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?
I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn’t disappointed. Soon, the ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking. The ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman.
“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, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.
“This is a wonder,” I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery. “Rags! Rags! New rags for old!” In a little while, the ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. 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’ll 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! “Rags! Rags! I take old rags!” cried the sobbing, bleeding ragman.
The sun hurt both the sky 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, but the ragman had only one. “Go to work,” he said.
I followed the little old ragman and watched as he came to a landfill, cleared a space for himself and 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 an abandoned car and wailed and mourned – 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 night. But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.
Light – pure, hard, demanding light – slammed against my face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the last and the first wonder of all. There was the ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow or of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness. Then I lowered my head and walked up to the ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place and 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!