He never wanted to be there in the first place.
It's not that he was treated badly or that he was ignored. It's just that when he was there, he was bored. He had nothing to do.
He was a spectator, nothing more. And though he liked the horses, they didn't like him. They would snort and sputter, turn their ears down, stomp their hooves in the dirt. He kept his distance from them, and so they, for the most part, did the same.
The farm hands ignored him too. He stayed out of their way, let them take care of the horses, muck out the stalls in the barn, ensure that all of the fences stayed strong and secure, would hold the horses, keep them properly enclosed.
He was there to keep a watch on his sister, make sure that she wasn't alone with the instructor or any of the farm hands. It wasn't that their parents thought the men from this riding school were dishonourable or untrustworthy; if they felt that way, his sister wouldn't be there in the first place. But it seemed the proper thing to do, to keep a sibling as the unofficial chaperone, to be the independent eyes.
A boy, no matter how young, was safe on the farm, the family thought.
Some of the hands on the farm were mentally challenged, but they were capable of work. They had a special bond with the animals, and not just the horses: the dogs and cats also had a connection with the handicapped help. It may have been that these men were soft-spoken, gentle. Many times, you didn't know they were there.
That's why it surprised the boy when one of them approached him as he stood at the edge of the corral, watching his sister ride in circles, her instructor standing in the centre, turning around in one spot as she lapped the outer ring. The horses ears would turn back as the sister passed her brother.
The man didn't speak, didn't enunciate, so much as he softly hummed, almost singing. It was a nasal tone, not high, not low. It neither asked nor pleaded, but the boy knew it was a call. A beckoning.
Though the boy hadn't watched the farm hand working, he did see bales of straw moved from a wagon into the barn. The tone from the wordless man indicated that he wanted the boy to follow. That something was needed in the barn.
The lesson was almost over. Soon, his sister would be leading the horse into the stable, where she would remove the tack and harness, would wash down and groom her mount. He would need to be with her in the barn, to watch and wait while she finished her work.
He would follow this man, would be there, in the barn, when she was ready. At least, helping this man, he would be doing something, wouldn't be bored. With any luck, time would pass quickly.
The man had a limp, his left foot dragged on a perpendicular as he hobbled. He was squat, solid-framed; not fat, but hulkish. Husky, in a compact body. His denim jeans and blue plaid shirt were evidence of his hard work: the dirt was caked erratic patches, cracked where the strain of bending and lifting had added more patterns to the plaid. The hair under his weather-beaten Habs cap was dark, long, and greasy, had not been washed in days, if not weeks.
He smelled of the muck of the stables. He smelled of years of hard work.
The sun was just setting behind the barn and though dim, no lights had been turned on for the evening. There were enough slits in boards and open windows and doors to allow enough light to see, but barely. The boy could hear the whinny of some horses, put away for the day, but couldn't see them from within their individual cells.
The man led him to the stairs that were close to the open doors. There would be more light above, where the sun would continue to penetrate the windows a little longer. Long enough to be there until his sister came.
The man had worked hard. Countless bales of hay stood, neatly stacked at the top of the stairs. They would have been heavy, a burden to carry from the wagon and up to this level. But the man had accomplished his task. But he had more work to do and the day was fading.
The man grabbed one of the pitchforks that hung on a post and in one swift motion broke up one of the bales in the stack. He flung forkfuls into a pile in the far corner of the loft and then motioned to the boy, pointed to another pitchfork and with soft, whinnying grunts, indicated that he wanted the boy to help.
The fork was heavier that he imagined, but he could manage. His arms weren't accustomed to the heavy lifting, but he was capable. He didn't work as quickly as the man, but it surprised the boy how speedily the two of them managed the work of breaking up the bales and building a fresh pile that could be later sent down a chute to supply the stables below.
The boy was surprised that time almost slowed to a halt. By the time the two had a sufficient mound, the lesson had not yet ended. There was no noise from underneath the loft.
The man made a sound that the boy instantly recognized, that needed no translation in any language. A laugh. A sign of satisfaction.
The man, after taking the pitchfork from the boy and hanging both up on the posts, laughed, patted the boy on the shoulder, and moved closer.
Arms went around the boy, who was taken by surprise. The man with the mental handicap wanted to show his appreciation, and the boy had no warning. Though he didn't want to be rude, the boy didn't welcome the embrace, didn't want to be subjected to the encrusted filth and smell that defined this man.
But the man was strong and the embrace was paralysing. There was nothing the small boy, who could only just wield a straw-laden pitchfork, could do to break the grip.
The straw was brittle and strong as the boy hit it, the full weight of the man following, landing on top, pinning him down. The boy was winded, desperate for air, but could only smell the rancid odour of days-old sweat. The sourness gagged him, but he fought for every breath, determined not to let his windedness make him pass out.
The man kissed his cheek, tried to bring their lips together, but the boy rocked his head from side to side, resisting as much as he could. Apart from his head, only his legs from the knees down could move. He was helpless.
The man's breathing increased, as though he was working harder than the effort required to hoist the straw from the stack of bales to the pile on which they now lay. He hissed a stuttering "Shh...", one of his dirt-covered hands now moving to cover the boy's mouth, lest he scream out for help.
Another hand fumbled below, clumsily grabbing for the boy's pants, trying to get underneath. Immobile, the boy could only grind his teeth as he felt cool fingers on his warm abdomen, near the elastic boundary of his underpants.
This can't be happening, the boy thought. This can't happen to me. He thought of his sister, about how his parents had him at the farm for her protection. But who was to protect him? Surely, his sister's lesson was over by now. Surely, she would escort her horse into the barn, and he could call for help.
The only sound that he heard below was the grumbling of horses. They made noises that sounded to him like they knew something was wrong, that something was disturbing them. He could hear their disturbed whinnying under the excited whimpering and heavy breathing of the man atop him.
Please stop touching me, he pleaded. Please let me go. The man's fingers had not crossed below his underwear waist strap, but they were making progress. Closer, and closer. He started to cry.
And then he heard another sound. A voice. His mother's. Calling his name.
He was emboldened with more power. His squirms became stronger, more urgent.
I'm here, he screamed, shaking loose the hand that fought to suppress him.
The man's resolve diminished. The boy could feel the weight lifting off him. As soon as he was able, he scrambled below the man, caught purchase of the ground, and slipped out from under him.
He scrambled to his feet but never found his legs. He stumbled down the stairs and hit the floor of the main level with a thump.
I'm here. The words were gasping cries, huffing whimpers, more than words. His mother, walking with the sister, the horse, and the instructor, walked slowly to the barn. His mother's early arrival had delayed his sister's entrance into the stables.
What's wrong? his mother asked.
I want to go home was all he could muster as his breathing constricted him.
He was helping to move the straw, said the instructor, he must be worn out.
The boy walked past them all, walked straight to the parked car, pulling the straw from out of his hair and off his dusty clothes, wiping the saliva off his cheeks. He opened the car door and climbed in the back seat.
And composed himself when he heard his mother and sister approach the car.
He was a boy, trying to be a man. This wasn't supposed to happen to men. Or boys. Or anyone.
He kept silent the entire way home. He spoke nothing of what had happened to him. How could he face the humiliation of it all? No one else knew, except for the farm hand who did this to him, and he wasn't going to tell.
No, this was his secret. He was unharmed, the man was never able to really touch him where he shouldn't. It would never happen again.
Tonight was the last night of his sister's riding lessons for the season. That's probably why the man tried what he did. But the boy would never return. Not next season, not ever. He would never see that man again.
Nor the horses that didn't like him anyway.