Authors: Mary Losure
UMMER AND WINTER
, the wild boy lived in the forest.
He dug for roots with his bare hands and searched for nuts in the dry, dead leaves on the forest floor. Poisonous mushrooms grew there, too, but the boy had learned what was safe and what wasn’t. Before he ate anything, he sniffed it.
He went naked, like an animal. But he walked upright, like a human.
Animal trails led like green tunnels through the underbrush, but if the boy followed them, he always kept in mind where a stream was, for when he was thirsty, he had to find water. He had no way to carry it: no water jar or animal skin.
He had no tools. No fire.
He was (as nearly as anyone could figure out later) about nine years old.
Under his chin he bore a long, straight scar, slashed across his throat as though someone had tried to kill him and left him for dead in the forest. Yet somehow, the wild boy had survived.
In wintertime his bare feet left tracks in the snow, but no one seemed to notice them. If he came upon a tiny clearing and a peasant’s stone cottage, he didn’t show himself. If he smelled the smoke from woodcutters’ fires, he stayed hidden. Season after season passed, and no one knew about the boy living all by himself in the woods.
In places the forest gave way to rocky heights where blueberries ripened in the sun. If the wild boy scrambled up the rocks, he could see the distant ridges that circled all around him, as though he were standing in a bowl. What lay beyond, he had no way of knowing.
Below the lookout rocks, in a river valley just visible through the treetops, lay a village called Lacaune.
Sounds carried far in that valley: a rooster crowing, a dog barking, or a cowbell clanging. But if the wild boy heard them, he stayed far away. He loped through the trees and was gone.
NE DAY IN THE VILLAGE OF
, a couple of peasants returned from the woods with a strange story. They’d seen a naked boy crouched on the forest floor, his hands digging through the leaves for something to eat. They’d watched, curious. But they hadn’t caught him.
So the wild boy’s life in the woods went on.
In the mornings, he could watch as mist gathered in the mountain valleys before it faded in the sunlight. He could listen to rain pattering on the tree leaves. He could wake from sleep to see the round moon filling the night woods with light and shadows. A whole year passed as it always did in the forest.
Until one day, when the wild boy was about ten . . .
A group of woodsmen spotted him, and somehow, they caught him. He fought and bit, but it did no good. They took him to Lacaune and led him to the town square. It was paved with river rocks, bumpy beneath the wild boy’s bare feet. At its center, an ancient fountain splashed. All around, the tall houses of village merchants made a wall that blocked out the mountains.
Villagers gathered around the wild boy, jabbering in words he didn’t understand. Women washing their laundry in the stone troughs nearby set it aside and hurried over to see.
No one alive today knows the details of what happened next — whether the woodsmen kept a rope around the wild boy’s neck or tied his hands behind his back. No one knows if that night, they took him somewhere to sleep or left him in the square, tied and helpless. But every day, he was forced to stand, hour after hour, for everyone to see.
And maybe it was then that the wild boy began to hate the staring eyes of crowds.
But at last (exactly how, no one knows) he got loose. He ran for the forest and was free again.
His time as a prisoner had taught him something, though: where there were people, there was food.
Now sometimes when he was hungry, he visited the farm fields on the edge of the village. With the safety of the forest behind him, he dug for potatoes and turnips. Sometimes he carried them back into the woods. Other times he ate them where he stood.
When autumn came, the ferns on the forest floor withered to brown. The trees turned red and gold. Soon frost would touch the fields with white and the first snowflakes would swirl from the sky, but the wild boy could live through winter in the forest.
He’d done it for a long time.
The snow melted, and in the pale sunlight, wildflowers bloomed on the forest floor. The oaks and beeches put on their new leaves. Summer came, and the forest was shady again, dense and deep.
On July 25, 1799, when the wild boy was around eleven years old, he was captured again.
This time, it was three hunters who spotted him, and perhaps they had dogs, for the wild boy climbed a tree. The hunters caught him anyway, tied him up tight, and marched him down the mountain to Lacaune.
And this time, he wasn’t put on display. Instead, the hunters took him to stay with a poor old widow who lived in a little cottage just behind the Lacaune village square.
Why they chose her, no one knows. Perhaps she was the only one in the village who would take in a strange, wild boy.
Stories told later said she made him wear a shirt to cover his nakedness, but if she did, it couldn’t have been easy, for the wild boy
clothes. Perhaps she was a gentle, patient person who was kind to him and he wore a shirt to please her. Or maybe the hunters forced the scratching, biting boy into a shirt he couldn’t get off. The peasants’ stories offer no clues.
They do say the widow seemed to like the wild boy.
She offered him meat, both raw and cooked in an iron pot over the fire, but he wouldn’t eat it. When she gave him acorns, he sniffed them first, then ate them. After sniffing them, he ate chestnuts, walnuts, and potatoes, too.
The walls of the widow’s cottage, like the other cottages in Lacaune, were made of stone. Dim light came through the tiny windows.
Maybe once — so long ago that he had forgotten all but the faintest memory — the wild boy had lived in a cottage much like this one.
Maybe, as the widow tended her cooking fire or swept her hearth with her hazel-twig broom, the wild boy watched her, trying to remember his own mother, his own home.
Eight days passed.
But the wild boy’s real home, now, wasn’t a cottage. It was the woods, the wind, the night stars, and the moon shining down.
So the wild boy escaped again.
This time he climbed the mountain slopes until the village was far below him, its gray stone roofs growing smaller the higher he climbed. When he reached the summit, he loped down the other side into another valley. Ahead of him lay more mountains.
Now, in this new country, the wild boy seemed to have less fear of strangers.
Sometimes when he saw a peasant’s cottage, he would walk right up to it and go inside.
There he would stand, a thin, wild-haired boy dressed only in a tattered and dirty shirt. Perhaps the peasants were curious, or maybe they pitied him, but in any case they gave him food.
And when they offered him potatoes, he did something no one seems to have noticed him doing before: he would put them into the fire to cook. Maybe he had learned that from watching the old lady, but in any case, he wasn’t very patient. He’d pull them from the fire, eat them when they were still burning hot, and be out the door.
As the summer days passed, he roamed the countryside, visiting isolated farms and stopping several times at one farm where the people were particularly nice to him.