Authors: Mary Losure
In time, he worked his way down the mountain slopes. Ahead of him lay a long, low saddle of land. The wild boy loped across it, through stony fields where peasants grew rye for their coarse, black bread. Along the walls and hedges that divided one field from another grew blackberries and wild plums. Perhaps he stopped to sniff them first, before he ate them.
Now all around him lay a landscape of fields and woods. On distant hills, the spires of village churches poked the sky. Beyond lay more hills: the world unfolding into the blue distance.
The wild boy could see far now that he’d left the forest — but he could also be seen. Soon, peasants in the area began talking about a strange new visitor.
Later, a man from the French government, a commissioner named Guiraud, rode his horse deep into that same country and asked people there about the wild boy.
They told him stories of how the boy swam in streams and climbed trees, dug in the fields for food, and could run very fast on all fours.
And people said, too, that when the mountain winds blew, the wild boy looked at the sky, made sounds deep in his throat, and gave great bursts of laughter.
The days grew shorter. When fall ended, bitter cold set in, the coldest winter in many years.
On January 8, 1800, the wild boy was coming down a narrow, steep-sided valley when it took a sharp turn. There, in front of him through the bare trees, loomed a tall white building with a red tile roof and wooden balconies. Around it, carved into the steep sides of the valley, lay vegetable gardens. Could there be potatoes or turnips beneath the cold earth?
He loped forward, crouched down, and began to dig.
He was caught (it’s said by the back of his tattered shirt) by the man who owned the building, a tanner named Vidal.
But what did it matter, really? He’d always escaped before.
Surely he could do it again.
HE TANNER TOOK HIM INSIDE
the building, which lay on the outskirts of a village named Saint-Sernin. Before long, everyone in the village ran to see. Among them was a village official named J.-J. Constans-Saint-Estève.
“I found him seated in front of a fire that appeared to give him great pleasure,” the man wrote. But he noticed that from time to time, the boy seemed uneasy with so many people around.
Constans-Saint-Estève came closer. He began to ask the wild boy questions, but got no reply. The village official spoke louder, but still the wild boy was silent.
The strange boy’s eyes shone with intelligence, Constans-Saint-Estève remembered years later. But there was something in his expression that the man couldn’t quite read.
Constans-Saint-Estève felt sorry for the wild boy, but he was also curious about him. More curious, it seemed, than anyone else who had seen him so far. The man was also, as a village official, the kind of person who was used to getting his way.
So Constans-Saint-Estève decided to take the wild boy home with him.
He took the boy’s hand, kindly, and tried to lead him toward the door, but the wild boy “resisted vigorously,” Constans-Saint-Estève wrote later.
Yet when Constans-Saint-Estève patted him and kissed him and smiled at him in a friendly way, the wild boy suddenly seemed to change his mind. He let the man lead him out the door. Trailed by curious villagers, the two of them walked down the narrow valley.
Soon they came to a river. A mill wheel turned in the water, creaking in the cold air. Above them, the village of Saint-Sernin perched high on the cliffs on the other side of the river.
Constans-Saint-Estève and the wild boy crossed a stone bridge, then climbed steep steps cut into the rock. When they reached the village, they walked through a maze of streets until they came to a tall, narrow house crowded among all the others atop the cliffs. The man opened the door, and the wild boy went inside.
A servant brought an earthenware plate of food piled with meat, both cooked and raw, along with rye bread and wheat bread, apples, pears, grapes, walnuts, chestnuts, acorns, parsnips, an orange, and some potatoes.
The wild boy picked up each kind of food, sniffed at it, and refused to eat anything but the potatoes. These he threw into the fire, then snatched them out again and ate them hot.
Constans-Saint-Estève told the servant to get more potatoes, and the wild boy seemed happy to see them.
When he was done eating, the wild boy looked around the room. He took Constans-Saint-Estève’s hand, led him to a pitcher of water, and rapped on it. When the servant brought wine instead of water, the boy wouldn’t drink it. He showed “great impatience,” Constans-Saint-Estève later recalled, until he was given water.
Then, having eaten and drunk his fill, the wild boy bolted out the door.
He ran swiftly, but the town of Saint-Sernin, high on its rock, was no easy place to escape from. The houses formed impassible walls, and they were hung with balconies from which anyone could spot a boy on the run. Many streets came to dead ends or led to cliffs, high above the river. Constans-Saint-Estève chased behind, yelling.
“I had a hard time catching him,” Constans-Saint-Estève wrote later, but once captured, the wild boy let himself be led back to the house. The whole way back, he kept his face still, showing no signs of either pleasure or displeasure. Curious, the man began watching the wild boy more and more carefully.
What was the wild boy thinking?
He was content with simple things, Constans-Saint-Estève noticed. He would hold an acorn in his hand for the longest time, gazing at it as though the mere sight of it made him happy. Constans-Saint-Estève wrote that the boy had an “air of satisfaction that nothing could trouble.”
Nothing, that is, except being trapped inside the house.
The wild boy tried to find ways to escape, but Constans-Saint-Estève was always watching him. The wild boy had no way of knowing the reason, but it was this: Constans-Saint-Estève wanted to see if this odd boy really
what the peasants claimed: a truly wild human being.
Why did that matter?
It mattered because Constans-Saint-Estève, who had once lived in the great and faraway city of Paris, knew that scientists there would be very, very interested in studying a real wild human.
So Constans-Saint-Estève observed the wild boy closely all that day, and the next.
Then he got out his official government stationery, dipped a quill pen in an inkpot, and began a letter. It was addressed to the administrators of the nearest orphanage, which was in a small town called Saint-Affrique.
“I have ordered brought to your orphanage . . . an unidentified child,” he wrote. “In every respect, this interesting and unfortunate being invites the care of humanity, perhaps even the attention of a philanthropic observer.” (“Philanthropic observer” was another way of saying scientist.) “I am informing the government,” he added, noting that the government would most likely decide to have the wild boy sent to Paris.
“Would you see to it that all possible care is provided,” the letter went on. “Have the child watched during the day and bedded for the night in a room from which he cannot escape.”
(military policemen) came to the door of Constans-Saint-Estève’s house, they wore stiff blue-and-red coats, tall black boots, and long swords. They took the wild boy away with them, and they cannot have been very gentle about it, because afterward, he hated men in uniforms.
All day, he was jostled and jolted as the horses made their way down the slopes of Saint-Sernin, then galloped down the road toward Saint-Affrique. The town lay at the end of a wide valley, beyond which lay more mountains.
As night fell, the
reined in their horses on swampy ground by a wide river. Through a set of stone gateposts, they entered a walled garden. At its far end sat the dark hulk of a building — the orphanage of Saint-Affrique.
The next day — January 11, 1800 — a new entry was added to the list of names in the orphanage’s admittance book.
A young savage, found in the woods near Saint-Sernin. Deaf and mute
The wild boy was
deaf, as people at the orphanage soon discovered. But they must have wondered: If he wasn’t really deaf, maybe he wasn’t really wild, either? For this is what they did next: They took the wild boy outside and led him to an open field, bare in the wintertime. Beyond it, the mountains loomed.
And then they let him loose.
“He took to running on all fours,” a man at the orphanage wrote later. “If we had not followed him closely and overtaken him, he would soon have reached the mountain and disappeared.”
Instead, he was led back to the grim, gray building.
Within the orphanage’s stone walls, there were sometimes tiny babies abandoned by their parents. Sometimes brothers and sisters appeared on its doorstep, stayed until they were ten or twelve, then went out into the world to seek their fortunes. Their names were written in a big, thick roll book, the dates recorded under columns labeled “Entered” and “Left.” For those who weren’t lucky enough to leave, there was a third column: “Dead.”
But at that particular time, the winter of 1800, the wild boy seems to have been the only child there. The roll book then shows only grown-ups: people living in a building that served not only as an orphanage, but also as a hospital and a poorhouse. They included wounded soldiers, villagers who were sick or old, a woman who was “feeble in spirit,” and a nameless, homeless man picked up in the town square.
Now all of them could gaze with surprise at the newest arrival — a wild boy.
“His eyes are dark and full of life,” an orphanage administrator wrote. “He searches incessantly for a means of escape.”
They offered him bread, but he smelled it, bit it, and threw it away. “We made him a gown of gray linen,” the orphanage administrator wrote. “He does not know how to get it off, but this garment annoys him greatly. We have just let him free in the garden. Wanting to escape, he tried to break one of the strips of wood in the gate. He never speaks. When he is given potatoes, he takes as many as his pretty little hands can hold. If the potatoes are cooked (he prefers them thus), he peels them and eats them like a monkey. He has a pleasing laugh. If you take his potatoes away from him, he lets out sharp cries.”
The man wrote that the wild boy appeared to be about twelve years old, at most.
N THE GREAT CATHEDRAL TOWN OF
, just a few days’ journey north of the orphanage, lived a thin-faced, long-nosed professor named Pierre-Joseph Bonnaterre. He was a priest but also a scientist, which in those times was not unusual. And one day, the news reached him that a wild boy had been discovered in the woods and was now not far from Rodez.
Bonnaterre, who taught natural history at a school for boys, was very, very interested.
Like other naturalists, Bonnaterre examined plants and animals, compared them with others, and fit them into categories. Birds were creatures to be captured and preserved, stuffed, with tufts of cotton where their eyes had been and labels hung from their tiny claws. Butterflies were specimens to be taken by their bright wings and stuck through with pins. A portrait of Bonnaterre shows him sitting very upright at his desk, wearing a tight collar and a cold, slightly pained expression. A collection of specimens lies at his elbow: a shell, a snake, and a small, wide-eyed fish that, if not yet dead, soon would be.