PROLOGUE : ENNIS
When he was six years old he found a naked man in the hayloft. He'd been hiding from KE in a horse stall late one morning when he heard a noise above him. Hoping it was Ace, the ranch hand who was nice to him and sometimes slept up there when it was hot, he stepped to the ladder and climbed the rungs. The bare feet, calves and thighs that came into view as he inched higher didn't belong to Ace, but a grownup like him sprawled awkwardly on his back in the hay. The man smiled at him and said he looked like the sun. He needed clothes, so Ennis clambered back down the ladder and went to the nail where Ace hung his clean shirts. He climbed back up, stepped onto the planks and handed one to the man, then lowered himself into the hay near him, resting his chin on one bent knee. He studied the man's torso frankly as he shrugged on the shirt. His daddy said a man's body was a machine for working; he had never seen a machine so relaxed in the middle of the day. When the man reached out and touched Ennis' knee where the skin showed though a rip in his jeans, a shiver ran through him. At the same moment he heard his mother ring the bell for lunch.
After the meal, he ran back to the barn with half his sandwich in his pocket but the hayloft was empty, except for the blue shirt splayed out in the hay.
For weeks afterwards, he checked the hayloft daily but never saw the man again. Eventually he stopped thinking about the stranger, and then forgot him, but took to watching Ace unsaddle and groom the horse he'd been riding in the stable in the evening. Unlike other hands, Ace always changed his shirt after he finished working. Ennis would fetch one from the nail and hand it to him. It became a ritual that irritated his father, who soon found other chores for him to do at that hour. At the end of the next summer, his father told Ace he had no more work for him, that he should ask for a job with the two old men on the neighboring ranch.
A year later, his father brought him and KE to see one of the old men sprawled dead in the ditch, black nothingness between his bare legs, his skin and shirt shredded. At the table that evening, as his mother spooned stew onto their plates, understanding dawned in him: women in the house made you safe, the more the better. Ace had been sent away to live with men who had no woman to protect them.
After supper, he threw up behind the barn. At the peak of his anguish, he had a terrifying vision of the naked man he'd seen in the hayloft when he was little, the man who had smiled and been kind.