"He was the most resolute teenager I'd ever had in the barnyard. I could feel all the pain that was balled up inside him under that false front of apathy.
It was two hours into the tour and him listening from a far that I heard his deep, quiet voice behind me.
"Can I pet that chicken?"
I whirled around to see the tall, quiet boy standing there, his arms still crossed and his gaze still on the ground.
He allowed me to set the hen in his arms. For a second he seemed frozen, just staring down at Strawberry. But then, very gently he began to pet her head with two fingers. He opened his hand and stroked her from head to tail feathers with the tenderest touch. I gestured to one of the counselors who'd accompanied the group to give us a few more minutes and the boy stood there petting her as though in a trance.
After a while he looked off into space, his eyes were glistening.
"I used to have a chicken when I was a kid." he said. "I came home from school one day and she was gone. No one would tell me where she was."
"I'm sorry that happened to you", I told him. "I know how much that hurts."
"She was the only one that understood me."
Slowly, as he talked and as I let him know I understood, his gaze traveled higher and higher until finally he was looking right into my eyes.
"I miss my parents," he said.
He told me he hadn't seen them in a very long time, that he'd been put into a foster home, and then another and another. He told me his story and he gently petted the hen the whole time he talked.
This was a different person from the tough, apathetic teenager who'd walked in two hours earlier. Locked so deeply within his pain and isolation, he'd been unable to give anyone a chance to get inside. He'd built a fortress to keep out the hurt, but those thick walls had also kept out the love. Andre's walls came down that day because of a little hen named Strawberry; she'd opened him up wide and allowed him to feel my empathy. Something he hadn't felt in a very long time."
- Ellie Laks, "My Gentle Barn"
Inspired by @thegentlebarn