Authors: Mary Losure
But after a while, the boy began to follow Clair around like a puppy.
When spring came, Clair had soil to dig and seeds to plant, so most likely the wild boy would have gone with him to the garden. The boy’s lively dark eyes would have watched Clair as he turned the earth, releasing its rich spring scent. The boy would have watched as Clair’s workingman’s hands, as lined with dirt as his own, dropped in the seeds.
Beans, perhaps, or the flat, pale seeds of cucumbers.
The wild boy sometimes buried food to dig up later. Now, here in the garden, Clair was doing something very similar!
When the old man took up his spade and shuffled to another part of the garden, maybe the wild boy trotted after him to see what he’d do next.
Meeting Clair was one good thing at the Central School.Another was discovering different kinds of food.
“He was constantly occupied during his stay at Rodez in shelling green beans; and he fulfilled this task with an expertise appropriate to the most practiced man,” Bonnaterre noticed.
On his left, the wild boy piled the dried bean plants, with their pods, and on his right he put a pot to cook them in. “He opened the pods one after the other with an inimitable suppleness of movement,” Bonnaterre wrote. “As he emptied the pods, he piled them up next to him symmetrically: and when his work was through, he took away the pot, added water, and put it next to the fire which he fueled with the pods he had piled up. If the fire was out, he took the shovel and placed it in the hands of Clair, signaling him to go looking for some nearby coals.”
The wild boy discovered that potatoes didn’t always have to be roasted in a fire: he also liked them cooked in other ways. “When he felt like eating hash-browned potatoes, he chose the largest, brought them to the first person he found in the kitchen, tendered a knife to cut them into slices, went to find a frying pan, and pointed out the cupboard where the cooking oil was stored.”
After a while, when the wild boy went to the kitchen, he lifted every pot lid to see what was underneath it.
Instead of sniffing meat and rejecting it the way he had before, he tasted some — and discovered that he liked both meat and meat broth. When he found a pot of broth, he waited until the cook’s back was turned to dip in a piece of bread. Then he’d pop it in his mouth. “I saw him do [it] one day five or six times in a row without being caught,” Bonnaterre wrote.
One day the wild boy got a taste of sausage, and instantly it became one of his favorite foods.
The next day, wrote Bonnaterre, “a captain of the auxiliary battalion of Aveyron, who was dining in the room where the child was, signaled him to approach, by showing him a little piece of sausage he had cut from a larger piece on his plate; the young man approached to accept the offer. . . . With his left hand he took the morsel that the captain held between his fingers; with the other hand, he adroitly seized the rest of the sausage on the plate.”
As the boy scampered away with his prize, maybe the captain thought it was funny, but Bonnaterre didn’t seem to.
He recorded the incident solemnly, one more observation along with all the others he was collecting about this strange creature, this possible
Bonnaterre had noticed that the wild boy followed Clair from place to place, but he didn’t think that meant the boy actually
Clair. “His affections are as limited as his knowledge,” Bonnaterre decided. “If he shows some preference for his caretaker,” he wrote, “it is an expression of need and not the sentiment of gratitude; he follows the man because the latter is concerned with satisfying his needs.”
Bonnaterre didn’t think the wild boy was very bright, either. In fact, Bonnaterre suspected he was the kind of person that scientists in those days called an “imbecile.”
“Suspicion of imbecility,” Bonnaterre wrote in his report, and he tallied up what he’d observed, the results of the many tests the wild boy never knew he was taking.
“This child is not totally without intelligence . . . ; however, we are obliged to say that . . . we find only purely animal function: if he has sensations, they do not give rise to ideas. . . . He reflects on nothing.”
The boy had “no imagination, no memory,” the professor wrote. “This state of imbecility is reflected in his gaze, for he does not fix his attention on any object; . . . in his gait, for he always walks at a trot or a gallop; in his actions, for they lack purpose and determination.”
Whether it was true or false, fair or unfair, Bonnaterre’s verdict would soon be written down for all the world to see: the wild boy was, mostly likely, an imbecile.
By mid-July, the gardens in the courtyard of the Central School basked in the warm sun. Beans hung on the vines for the picking, but the wild boy would not be there to shell them. For an official order had come from Paris.
A group of Paris scientists calling themselves the Society of Observers of Man wanted
chance to study the wild boy. One of them had gone to see the French Minister of the Interior, a man named Lucien Bonaparte. Lucien Bonaparte was the brother of the mighty Napoléon Bonaparte, the ruler (soon to be emperor) of France.
The Minister had written a letter demanding to have the “unfortunate boy” sent to Paris. “I claim him,” Lucien Bonaparte had written to officials at Rodez, “and request that you send him to me forthwith.”
The Minister had sent the letter months ago, back in the winter, but by the time it reached Rodez, the wild boy was already at the Central School. The Minister had decided to let him stay there for a time, but now that time was up.
That July, in the year 1800, the Minister sent another order, commanding Professor Bonnaterre to bring the wild boy to a special school in Paris. The Institute for Deaf-Mutes, as it was then called, was for children who couldn’t hear or speak, who were known in those days as “deaf-mutes.”
It was run by one of the members of the Society of Observers of Man, a man named Abbé (
is a French word for priest) Roche-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard.
Who was, it seemed, quite eager to meet the wild boy of Aveyron.
S HE SAT IN THE CARRIAGE
, the wild boy wore the same rough tunic and leather belt he always did. His feet, as usual, were bare. Beside him on the carriage seat was a little sack packed with a few familiar foods: rye bread, potatoes, beans, and walnuts.
It was July 20, 1800, and the wild boy, Bonnaterre, and Clair were on their way to Paris. The wild boy didn’t know that, of course. How could he, without words, understand?
The wild boy was good at reading the expressions on people’s faces. But what did they mean now, the looks on Clair’s kind face and Bonnaterre’s cold one?
And how could the wild boy ask, using only his hands? He’d always known how to show people what he wanted — a quick rap on a pitcher for water, a finger pointed at the key to his room when he wanted to go to bed. But what is the motion for “Where are we going?” What is the gesture for “What is going to happen to me?”
Day after day, the countryside jogged by outside the carriage window.
Bonnaterre noticed that the wild boy always kept his little sack of food close to him. “Whenever we changed carriages or arrived at an inn, he stopped in front of the door and would not enter the lodgings until preceded by this object of his dearest affection,” he wrote scornfully.
But how could the wild boy help wondering,
What will happen when the sack is empty?
There are times in the wild boy’s life that are hidden, as though a sudden fog swirled down, misting everything; the wild boy’s long journey to Paris is one of them. If he had adventures along the way, the only one who saw them (at least, who could write things down) was a grim, narrow-nosed professor. Bonnaterre left a few clues, nothing more.
Still, from those clues, and from old maps of the time, it’s possible to figure out some of what happened.
The road from Rodez led upward into more mountains, even higher and more remote than those the wild boy had come from. When he came to streams, the wild boy would lie down on his stomach and drink, “putting his chin into the water right up to his mouth,” Bonnaterre noticed. Maybe it was in these wild mountains that the wild boy tried, again, to run away. “During our trip, he . . . made several unsuccessful attempts at escape,” Bonnaterre noted. The professor did not say where or how the wild boy escaped, or who caught him. Was it Clair who chased after him, calling him back, pleading? Was it a villager who set after him with dogs baying in the night?
On rocky, winding roads they traveled past deep gorges and waterfalls and lonely marshes where wild birds cried. Then they descended to a plain. There, the roads were wider, paved with lava.
They came to a town called Clermont, built of the same dark stone. Its filthy streets looked like tunnels through a dunghill, a traveler there once noted; sickening smells hung so heavy in the dark, narrow lanes that the wind from the mountains could barely blow them away.
Perhaps it was in that dark, dirty city that the first gawkers began gathering. Bonnaterre wrote later that during their trip, they were pestered by “curious people who stationed themselves in crowds along our route.”
But wherever it first began, the staring eyes and the jabbering faces were back.
From Clermont, the road to Paris wound through fields of golden wheat, ripe for the harvest. But as the days passed in the hot, dusty carriage, the wild boy grew listless.
As they neared the town of Moulins, about halfway to Paris, the boy began to shiver in the July heat. He wouldn’t eat. When they stopped to change horses, he could hardly get up.
For the wild boy had a fearsome, dreaded disease — smallpox.
The first symptoms of smallpox are a rash, first on the face, then on the arms and legs. Then, as the disease takes hold, the rash changes to something much worse — raised, pus-filled bumps that can leave behind deep pits that scar a victim’s face forever.
That is, if the person is lucky enough to survive.
Clair worried, but what could he do?
Even Bonnaterre was worried, he wrote in a letter.
Later, another scientist would write a few lines about the wild boy’s sickness: “He refused to eat for two days; he was sad and troubled. He was not given any medicine.”
But he was tough, that wild boy.
He’d survived many things that would have killed other people. Now smallpox was one more.
“He recovered very well in a few days,” the scientist noted. When the disease had passed, the wild boy had no new scars — only his old ones, the burns and slashes he’d had for so long.
Now he barely had time to rest before being bundled back into the carriage.
In early August, eighteen days after they’d left Rodez, they neared the city of Paris. Ahead in the distance rose two sets of low hills. Between them, in a blue haze, spread a sea of slate roofs, chimneys, and church spires. The sun had already set and the summer night was falling as the stagecoach clattered into the city.
“[He] arrived . . . at ten o’clock at night in the charge of an old serving man who has been caring for him . . . and of a professor of natural history at the Central School of Rodez, Citizen Bonnaterre,” an article in one of the city’s newspapers, the
Gazette de France