It’s not common knowledge, but I work in a facility that caters to individuals with special needs. The community is beautiful, and it’s a great place to know that what you’re doing is making a difference. What people may not know is that a lot of the people that I see day in and day out make a difference in my life as well, even in the subtlest of ways.
I wanted to tell a story that spoke of those special people. We might not always understand their needs or their wants, and we surely don’t appreciate all that they go through day after day. What we do understand is that they’re beautiful in their own rights, and I wanted to express that in this story. Because everyone has a little bit of hero in them.
A swirl of grey and blue on white, the art upon the canvas began to protrude with each substantial layer. Over and over, the brush was set to the hemp, each bristle gently laying down the color. It was as if the artist was merely holding the brush, letting the paint dictate the course of the expression.
The boy didn’t notice when the strangers arrived at the farm or when the mule that pulled their cart brayed with evident fatigue.
His father, a rugged man who had been greyed by years of toiling in the field, swept the sweat from his brow with his wrist and let go of the plow he was dragging. He clapped his calloused hands together and wiped them on his britches as he began away from the field to meet the unexpected visitors.
“Morning,” the man said. If he was exhausted from his labors, they did not show. “You’re a long way from civilization.”
“Aye, that we are,” the well-dressed man of the pair with the wagon agreed. He seemed far more beaten by the travel than the farmer was by his work, and his eyes begged for sympathy as the men converged on the same spot at a fence that penned the field. “We’ve been traveling a while and thought that Sungarden was much closer. It’s our first time this far west.”
“You boys from Raleigh?” the farmer asked.
A nod shook the man’s head. Streaks of silver were apparent in his dark hair, and his brow was weathered with lines. “Business has been slow these past few months, and I thought a change of scenery might help with that.” A moment of silence the merchant was uncomfortable with passed between them, and he swallowed away his disgrace. “I’d hate to ask this, but we are without food or drink. I was hoping—”
The farmer was already nodding before his guest had finished speaking.
A weary smile crept to the merchant’s face. “That’s a relief. The kindness of strangers isn’t something I’m akin to on these roads.”
“A long way from roads, I’m afraid,” the farmer said with a knowing dip of his chin. “We’ll settle you in for the day, and in the morning, we’ll set you in the right direction.” He turned and waved, leading the strangers toward the farmhouse where his son still sat. The merchant and his traveling companion were separated from the farmer by the fence, but they walked beside each other.
“Is it just you and your family here?” the merchant asked.
“Just me and my boy,” the farmer replied. “His mother left us a while back.”
“I’m sorry to hear—”
“This your lad?” the farmer interjected.
The merchant turned, looking at his companion, a stout fellow still barely in his youth. His thick brow and scruffy face were offset by his closely cropped hair, and he seemed altogether displeased with the conversation, the travel, and perhaps everything else the world happened to offer. The older fellow still managed a smile.
“Not mine, no. Just another down-on-his-luck trying to see if he can change his fortune.”
The lad huffed when mention of him was complete, shaking his head and averting his gaze from either of the two older fellows.
“Afraid you’ll not find too much luck out this way,” the farmer said. “The nobles of Sungarden have been a little ignorant of domestic wares. They’ve been preferring goods from overseas, places like Astranar or Lustra.” The lines on the visitor’s face were more prominent then. He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t even know what it is you’re selling. You can tell I’m a bit weary of that city. They haven’t exactly been good to my boy and me in recent months.”
Cracking the widest smile he could, the merchant tapped his hand on the fence. “It’s all right. I shall pray for a drought in the other continents. You’ll have your crops sell again, good sir.”
The trio of men arrived just before the farmhouse, the mule and the wagon behind them. The boy was acutely aware of their presence but gave no indication he knew they were there.
“Afternoon there, young fellow,” the merchant spoke. When he received no response or even an acknowledgement, he turned toward the farmer, who was subtly shaking his head. “Doesn’t take too kindly to strangers, does he?”
“It’s not that,” the farmer said. “It’s just–”
“No matter,” the merchant said with a wave of his hand. “He has his reasons, and I shan’t press the matter further.”
The farmer nodded and left it at that. “After we get your carriage over to the barn, we’ll get you set up in my room. I can spend the night with my son.”
“We couldn’t put you out like that,” the merchant said. “If the barn is good enough for Tess, it’s good enough for us, too.”
“Nonsense. It can get plenty cold here in Daltain at night. Those walls in the barn let the chill in. We’ll see you’re well taken care of.”
The merchant squared his jaw and nodded again. “You’re far too kind. Do you see a lot of folks that lose their way and need a hand?”
“Not particularly. Don’t see much of anyone these days. Getting my boy to town is a bit of a challenge, so we mostly just make ends meet with what we have on the farm.”
“Well, there are worse ways to earn a meal, I suppose.” The merchant patted the mule on the side of its neck.
“That old girl all right to be in the barn?” the farmer asked.
“Only if we won’t be imposing. I don’t want to put out your livestock on account of her.”
Shaking his head, the farmer made his way to the gate that opened into the field. “No livestock to speak of, unfortunately. Our last cow was taken by the heat last year, and I haven’t had the money to get to market, let alone purchase a replacement. It was good eats for a few weeks anyway.” He struggled with the latch for a few moments, tugging with all his strength to no avail. “Galvan, be kind,” he spat, evoking the god of crafts. “This bolt won’t budge anytime soon. Would you mind waiting here while I gather a mallet?”
“Patience is the least we could offer you in repayment,” the merchant said.
Leaping up the stairs, the farmer pulled the door open and disappeared within.
His visitors left the mule by the fence, content to graze while the merchant and his apprentice ascended the steps of the farmhouse. The merchant wiped his brow and swept his gaze about the fields. “This is a good life,” he said. “Self-sustaining, no one to lord their opinions over you – much better than what we deal with.” He leaned on the railing and watched the farmer’s lad continue to paint. “This place must keep you quite happy, eh, son?”
The boy kept painting away, only a fleeting breeze returning any sound to the merchant. He looked at his companion and raised his eyebrows, a weary shrug and a crooked grin explaining there was no sense worrying about the lack of acknowledgment.
“What do you think?” he asked his apprentice. “Might not be a bad place to settle for a while before we head home.”
He didn’t say anything either, dropping to his rump on the stairs. Leaning against the opposite railing, he stared off toward the cart.
“I can’t be the only one around here who speaks,” the merchant laughed. “What a miserable existence that would be.”
“I don’t want to go home,” the apprentice finally returned, rubbing his shoulder. “What’s waiting for me there?”
“What’s there for us on the road?”
The lad squared his jaw and stared off down the path they had just walked, the wagon’s wheels having flattened the grass in long stretches.
“So what is it then, young fellow?” the merchant asked again. “Would you say you enjoy this place?”
Again, faced with silence, the merchant just shook his head. He rose from the steps and made his way down to where the grass met with the railing, just beside the beaten dirt path. He plucked an emerald blade there and eyed it intently. He straightened it between his thumbs and brought it to his lips. After a pair of awkward attempts, he blew out a shrill whistle, the grass shuddering between his fingers.
The farmer’s boy turned his head, and for the first time, the merchant could see his icy blue eyes. They didn’t quite land on him, but when he made the grass sing again, the lad brought his hands to his ears, crooking his neck as if trying to locate the sound.
“I don’t ever want to go home again,” the merchant’s apprentice said. When he was met with only the braying of the donkey in response, he cleared his throat. “I’m sure there’s money to be made out here.”
The blade of grass, soggy and tattered by its use, was discarded to the dirt path. The merchant made his way back to the top of the steps and braced himself against the pillar that held up the roof. “I admire these bouts of optimism,” he finally said. “But maybe we’re in the wrong business.”
“We can’t give up now. Not yet.”
“Well, let’s ask the boy. If he says not to, we won’t go home. But if he’s as quiet as he has been, well… it might be best if we heavily discount our wares. Let’s make enough money to buy provisions for a trip home. What do you say?”
The apprentice said nothing, his lips curling into an uneasy scowl. His eyes were fixed on the path, tracing every step back from where they had come.
Walking beside the porch, the merchant let his hand slap against the weathered balusters, the white paint giving way to their natural color. He reached the corner of the building, peering up at the boy and his craft, the painting obscured just enough by each post that he couldn’t see the details. Back on the stairs, his companion had perked up, observing the interaction with building anticipation. He stood and braced against the railing.
“What do you think, boy?” the merchant asked. “Is there any reason for us to stay in this area?”
The farmer’s son kept painting for a moment, but sensing the proximity of the guest, he turned his head, looking out the corner of his eye.
The merchant arched his eyebrow, waiting for the first real interaction with the child.
But there was none, and the silence was deafening. The child turned back to his easel and continued to paint. The merchant looked to his companion, a defeated grin upon his face as he shrugged the slight away.
“Hey,” the young apprentice snapped from the stairs. “You just been spoken to.” When he wasn’t acknowledged either, he started forward a bit faster.
“Calm yourself, lad,” the merchant warned.
His companion was not prepared to heed those words. “You deaf?” He reached out and touched the young man, spinning him about.
The farmer’s boy was about the same age as the apprentice, but there was innocence about him. He looked untouched by the elements, unburdened by the troubles of the world. Averting his eyes immediately, he still remained silent, but he rocked back and forth in his seat.
“What’s wrong with this one?” the visitor said, a toothy grin stretching his lips. “Too frightened to even look at me?”
“Leave him alone, lad,” the merchant called out. “Get back here.”
With a harrumph, the apprentice nodded. Before he began away, though, the farmer’s son turned back to his painting. A cone of silver was prominently displayed atop a mismatched background of varying blues and darker purples. A sliver of green was painted at the top of the canvas.
“What is any of that supposed to be?” When he wasn’t answered, the apprentice scoffed and shoved the canvas off the easel.
The boy froze, his lips parting before his work had even landed upon the wooden porch. With a smug grin, the apprentice strode back toward the merchant.
“Fall down,” he heard, as quiet as a whisper behind him. “Fall down!”
He didn’t even have time to turn toward the farmer’s son before he fell upon him with all his weight. Struggling against that attack, he could feel the boy grasp him at his shoulders. Smothered into the wooden planks of the deck, the apprentice groaned. “Get off of me!”
The door to the farmhouse swung open, and the boy’s father rushed outside. “What’s going on out here?” He leapt over the merchant’s apprentice and hoisted his child away.
“No,” the boy said. “No, it’s not done!”
Setting the lad down by his fallen canvas, the farmer stood between his kin and the new arrivals. His son sat beside his work, rocking back and forth, avoiding eye contact with anyone after that but whispering again and again, “It’s not done. It’s still here. It’s not done. It’s still here.”
The merchant swallowed away the tension in the air and offered up a miniscule nod. “We’ll be happy to stay in the barn.”
* * * * *
Before the merchant had reached the dining table, his mouth was watering. Aromas mixed together into a delightful medley the likes of which he hadn’t enjoyed in some time. As he rounded the corner, he saw just how bountiful the meal was.
Bowls of berries and vegetables were scattered across the table, flanked by warm breads and hearty meats. The merchant detected the gamey scent of venison, which explained the heaping portions of food on the plate. Set before each chair was a dark drink as well, a tangy waft emanating from each mug.
“I was beginning to think you were going to hide out in the barn until morning,” the farmer said.
Pulling out the wobbly chair, the merchant sank into it. “The thought had crossed my mind. I’m sorry for what happened out there. It’s not often—”
“Water under the bridge. It wasn’t the first time that happened, and it certainly won’t be the last. My boy is… special. His mother said he was touched.”
“That’s why he’s so quiet.”
“He stays invested in his paintings. It’s one of the few things I’ve found that keeps him calm and collected. Sometimes I can get him to help me with a few chores on the farm, here and there, but more often than not, I’m just trying to find a way to keep him occupied so I can finish them on my own.”
“I take it the boy’s mother didn’t pass away. She simply left?”
The farmer nodded. “Guilt, I suppose. She thought she was responsible for his condition and disappeared one night. She didn’t even leave a letter, but all the signs were there. The restless yearning, the declarations of wrongdoing I hadn’t seen. Her mind had already brought her far away. It was only a matter of time before her heart took her there as well.”
The merchant looked to the lad, who scraped a metal fork across the ceramic plate, separating his vegetables and meats into smaller and smaller piles. Once they were apart, he ate only the meats. “You could have done the same, you know,” he said. “But you didn’t. You’re a good man, and though he probably doesn’t speak his gratitude, I’m sure he shows it to you on countless occasions.”
“There are good days and bad days. Sometimes I could swear I’m getting through to him. There’s a way he tilts his head or looks at me when I’m sure he understands every word I say and what I mean when I say it. Other times it’s those paintings and nothing else.”
The boy’s chair squealed as he pushed himself from the table. “You’re not done with your dinner,” his father declared. If the boy was concerned with that notion, it didn’t show. He was already on his way out of the room. “As I said, some days are better than others.”
“There’s certainly more to him than meets the eye, though,” the merchant said, tearing off a hunk of bread. “He knows what he likes. He made sure he ate every strip of meat, but those vegetables are still there. Berries, too.”
A resigned chortle rattled up from the farmer’s chest. “If only that could help on the farm. He has a knack for certain things, though. Sometimes he’ll pull me inside before a rain I didn’t even know was coming.” He pressed his own plate away and crossed his arms over his chest. “How about your apprentice? He seems a troubled lad. He’s not punished, I assure you. How could he know my boy was touched? No need to hide away in the barn.”
“I think he’s more embarrassed than anything. If not by his behavior, then surely by how easily he was throttled.”
“Nothing to be ashamed of there. I’ve lost my own battles with my son. The older he gets, the harder he is to keep rooted and out of trouble.”
“I think my lad’s problem is he’s used to being beat,” the merchant sighed. As he spoke the words, the revelation of why his apprentice was so vehemently against returning home hit him, as though a veil had been lifted from his eyes. “He’s not had as compassionate a father as your boy.”
“That’s a tricky spot he’s in. The life you’ve given him is better than what he had, no doubt.”
The merchant nodded. “But still not the life he wants. “He wants to go home, but he doesn’t know where that is.”
Both men reflected on their respective wards, finishing their meals in relative silence. When the food was gone from their plates, the farmer set aside one for the guest who had not come to dinner. The merchant followed him to the kitchen, sinking his flatware into the wash basin. They looked out the window, the afternoon sun obscured by dark clouds.
“About time we had a decent rain out this way. Maybe we’ll even get some water in that dried up well,” the farmer said. “Crops have been slow to grow this season.”
“And goods have been slow to sell,” his guest added. “Could it be as we’re getting older, we’re losing our touch?”
Though the notion was bitter, the farmer noted the merchant’s intentions were not. “We should get out there with your lad’s food before we see a downpour. No doubt it’s time to bring my boy’s latest masterpiece inside as well.”
As they made their way back through the dining area, he passed the leftover plate to his guest. Together, they walked through the house, the windows on that side offering considerably less light. When they emerged on the porch, the farmer’s son was nowhere to be seen.
“Hmm, now where’d that boy get off to?” he hummed. He glanced over at the far end of the porch, noticing the easel and the canvas were still present.
“Does he do this often? Disappear without warning?”
“Not particularly. He usually stays wherever he’s most comfortable: in his room or right here.” He narrowed his eyes as he reached the canvas, though, kneeling down for a better look. The silver cone had grown darker, and the rest of the picture became clear. A wave of realization washed over him, and he flipped the canvas. “We’ve got to find him and get your lad.”