The city was asleep on its right side and shaking with violent nightmares. Long puffs of snoring came out of the chimneys. Its feet were sticking out because the clouds did not cover it altogether. There was a hole in them, and the white feathers were falling out. The city had untied all the bridges like so many buttons to feel at ease. Wherever there was a lamplight the city scratched itself until it went out.
Trees, houses, telegraph poles, lay on their side. The rag picker walked among the roots, the cellars, the breathing sewers, the open pipe works, looking for odds and ends, for remnants, for rags, broken bottles, paper, tin and old bread. The rag picker walked in and out of the pockets of the sleeping city with his rag picker’s pick. In and out of the pockets over the watch chain on its belly, in and out of the sleeves, around its dusty collar, through the wands of its hair, picking the broken strands. The broken strands to repair mandolins. The fringe on the sleeve, the crumbs of bread, the broken watch face, the grains of tobacco, the subway ticket, the string, the stamp. The rag picker worked in silence among the stains and smells.
His bag was swelling.
The city turned slowly on its left side, but the eyes of the houses remained dosed, and the bridges unclasped. The rag picker worked in silence and never looked at anything that was whole. His eyes sought the broken, the worn, the faded, the fragmented. A complete object made him sad. What could one do with a complete object? Put it in a museum. Not touch it. But a torn paper, a shoe lace without its double, a cup without saucer, that was stirring. They could be transformed, melted into something else. A twisted piece of pipe. Wonderful, this basket without a handle. Wonderful, this bottle without a stopper. Wonderful, the box without a key. Wonderful, half a dress, the ribbon off a hat, a fan with a feather missing. Wonderful, the camera plate without the camera, the lone bicycle wheel, half a phonograph disc. Fragments, incompleted worlds, rags, detritus, the end of objects, and the beginning of transmutations.
The rag picker shook his head with pleasure. He had found an object without a name. It shone. It was round. It was inexplicable. The rag picker was happy. He would stop searching. The city would be waking up with the smell of bread. His bag was full. There were even fleas in it, pirouetting. The tail of a dead cat for luck.
His shadow walked after him, bent, twice as long. The bag on the shadow was the hump of a camel. The beard the camel’s muzzle. The camel walk, up and down the sand dunes. The camel’s walk, up and down. I sat on the camel’s hump.
It took me to the edge of the city. No trees. No bridge. No pavement. Earth. Plain earth trodden dead. Shacks of smokestained wood from demolished buildings. Between the shacks gypsy cans. Between the shacks and the carts a path so narrow that one must walk Indian file. Around the shacks palisades. Inside the shack rags. Rags for beds. Rags for chairs. Rags: for tables. On the rags men, women, brats, inside the women more brats. Fleas. Elbows resting on an old shoe. Head resting on a stuffed deer whose eyes hung loose on a string. The rag picker gives the woman the object without a name. The woman picks it up and looks at the blank disc, then behind it. She hears lick, tick, tick, tick, tick. She says it is a clock. The rag picker puts it to his ear and agrees it ticks like a clock but since its face is blank they will never know the time. Tick, tick, tick, the beat of time and no hour showing.
The tip of the shack is pointed like an Arab tent. The windows oblique like oriental eyes. On the sill a flower pot. Flowers made of beads and iron stems, which fell from a tomb. The woman waters them and the stems are rusty.
The brats sitting in the mud arc trying to make an old shoe float like a boat. The woman cuts her thread with half a scissor. The rag picker reads the newspaper with broken specs. The children go to the fountain with leaky pails. When they came back the pails are empty. The rag pickers crouch around the contents of their bags. Nails fall out. A roof tile. A sign post with letters missing.
Out of the gypsy cart behind them comes a torso. A torso on stilts, with his head twisted to one side. What had he done with his legs and arms? Were they under the pile of rags? Had he been thrown out of a window? A fragment of a man found at dawn.
Through the cracks in the shacks came the strum of a mandolin with only one string.
The rag picker looks at me with his one leaking eye. I pick a basket without a bottom. The rim of a hat. The lining of a coat. Touch myself. Am I complete? Arms? Legs? Hair? Eyes? Where is the sale of my foot? I take off my shoe to see, to feel. Laugh. Glued to my sole is a blue rag. Ragged but blue like cobalt dust.
The rain falls. I pick up the skeleton of an umbrella. Sit on a hill of corks perfumed by the smell of wine. A rag picker passes, the handle of a knife in his hand. With it he points to a path of dead oysters.
At the end of the path is my blue dress. I had wept I over its death. I had danced in it when I was seventeen, danced I until it fell into pieces. I try to put it on and come out the other I side. I cannot stay inside of it. Here I am, and there the dress, and I forever out of the blue dress I had loved, and I dance right I through air, and fall on the floor because one of my heels came off, the heel is lost on a rainy night walking up a hill kissing my loved one deliriously.
Where are all the other things, I say, where are all the things I thought dead?
The rag picker gave me a wisdom tooth, and my long hair which I had cut off. Then he sinks into a pile of rags and when I try to pick him up I find it scarecrow in my hands with sleeves full of straw and a high top hat with a bullet hole through it.
The rag pickers arc sitting around a fire made of broken shutters, window frames, artificial beards, chestnuts, horse’s tails, last year’s holy palm leaves. The cripple sits on the Stump of his torso, with his stilts beside him.
Out of the shacks and the gypsy carts come the women and the brats. Can’t one throw anything away forever? I ask.
The rag picker laughs out of the corner of his mouth, half a laugh, a fragment of a laugh, and they all begin to sing.
First came the breath of garlic which they hang like little red Chinese lanterns in their shacks, the breath of garlic followed by a serpentine song:
Nothing is lost but it changes
into the new string old string
in the new bag old bag
in the new pan old tin
in the new shoe old leather
in the new silk old hair
in the new hat old straw
in the new man the child
and the new not new
new not new
new not new
All night the rag picker sang the new not new the new not new until I fell asleep and they picked me up and put me in a bag.