Other kids like the 31st because of costumes and candy. Our family likes the 20th because of Tatty-ragman. Auntie says we brought him with us from the old lands. Not where Great-Granpa came from before America. The old-old lands, where there wasn’t enough food and the wind was always hungry.

Granpa says even a smart man will carry god around in his pocket. Our family carried the Tatty-ragman to keep us safe. The other kids point and laugh at our lumpy scarecrow, but we love our Tatty-ragman, especially this one. Papa made it, and that makes it special.

At night we line up around the fire pit and wait for our turn. There isn’t any feast, because there were no feasts back then. There is no shouting and singing, because sound carries on an open plain and wolves have hungry ears. We each have our rags in hand and we all take turns tying them around Tatty-ragman. He grows bigger and bigger with every tribute, until he puffs up big enough to protect us another year.

When we learned about the Eskimos in school, how in hungry times they would put their old folks on a raft of ice so they wouldn’t waste any food, Granpa harrumphed at it. Why waste a whole person? There was use to be gotten of everything.

Papa had been sick when he made the Tatty-ragman. Even with the extra poles he lists to the side. We kiss our palms and lay them on his side, each in turn. In old-old days it had been the oldest family member who made the Tatty-ragman. But that meant they wouldn’t have real strength to put into the Tatty-ragman, so he wouldn’t last long. Papa’s Ragman would last, we knew, and it filled us with pride.

Done tying the rags, done for another year, we take a minute to admire the ragman. His eyes are big and black to scan the horizon. His arms are long and wicked to drag danger away. But best of all is his voice: Papa drew rosined strings tight over gourds to keen in the wind. It sounds like loneliness and cold and afraid.

We finish and go back to the house and shut out the night to keep the warm in. We are safe for another year, Tatty-ragman would stand at the foot of the garden and make sure of that. Mama said love made the Tatty-ragman strong, Papa put his love into it. She won’t go courting this year, not even when she’s allowed it. Not many people left who would understand Tatty-ragman. Granpa said Papa’s pain was over, and he had never let it weaken his resolve.  The mark of a real man.

We sneak one last look at the Tatty-ragman. Does he wave good-bye to us? We hope so.


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