The Ragpicker, 1870 Edouard Manet
Gerard does not care about Napolean III or Otto von Bismark or the Prussians or anything else that the city seems to be talking about. Gerard cares about rats. He cares that they scatter when he pokes a pile of trash with his walking stick. He cares that sometimes one does not run away but hides, and when he reaches into a heap, that one will bite him. He thinks about his mother and her hatred of rats. When he was once bitten as a child, she chased him out of the house for a week telling him that it was his own fault if he died of the plague.
The Prussians are coming. The Prussians will be here soon, and who knows what will happen to his world when that happens. This is just the future, and he cannot stop them or convince his leaders or theirs to stop all of this, that it makes little difference who shuffles paper work in the palace because the rats are still in charge of the streets.
Gerard thinks about the Prussians toward sundown in an alley where a rat sits up on a barrel placidly watching him. He imagines Bismark’s pointy hat on the rat’s little head. He imagines his mother, who hated the Prussians, and how she would react to Rat von Bismark, and it makes him want to laugh.
But he is not his mother. “I see you,” he says to the little fellow. The rat seems to understand, looks right into Gerard’s eyes. “I do not fear you. You do not scare me. You are nothing.”
He pokes the rat with the end of his stick, and it runs away to whatever safe hole it lives in. Perhaps he will have the plague tomorrow. Perhaps the whole city will be dying of it in a week along with their Prussian guests. None of that matters. What matters is that where Rat von Bismark was sitting there is a bit of cloth that was once a wash rag, and before that a shirt, and is now a scrap that Gerard can take and sell to the paper makers. What matters is that in an hour or so, the sun will be down and Gerard will have lit a fire that he can warm himself by as he eats a little food and thinks of nothing.
John Brantingham was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines, Writers Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has twelve books of poetry and fiction including his latest, Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press). He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College.