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Authors: Mary Losure

Wild Boy (8 page)

BOOK: Wild Boy
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E
ACH DAY
when Victor’s lessons were over, he could go outside with Madame Guerin.

When the hour neared for their trip to the park, he’d drift to the window. He’d hover at the door. When it took Madame Guérin too long to get ready, he’d get her bonnet and shawl and set them in front of her. Sometimes he was so impatient, he’d try to put them on her himself. Then he’d open the door, lifting the latch (by pulling the latch string) himself.

When they went to the gardens that lay around the Paris observatory, Madame Guérin and Victor would often visit the Observatory’s caretaker, who had a house on the grounds.

The man always gave Victor a drink of milk in a china cup. One day by accident, Victor broke the cup. So the next day, all on his own, he brought a little wooden bowl. After that he always brought the bowl in his pocket.

After his milk, he liked to get people to give him rides in a wheelbarrow. He’d find someone in the caretaker’s house, take the person by the arm, lead them to the wheelbarrow, and climb in. If the person didn’t push him right away, he’d get out and roll the wheelbarrow a little way himself, to make sure they understood. Then he’d get in again and wait for his ride.

One day, Madame Guérin brought Victor a set of metal squares. They fit neatly into a specially made box that had rows of little wooden compartments, each one marked.

The mark on the first compartment looked like this:
A
.

The mark on the last one looked like this:
Z
.

It was Victor’s task to take all the metal squares out, then put each one back into the compartment where the mark matched the shape.
A . . . B . . . C . . .

So Victor took them all out, in order, and set them aside in neat stacks, in order. Then, without ever having to look at the shapes themselves, he set them all back in the right place.
Bang, bang, bang
, and it was done!

Dr. Itard came in and watched.

After that, Dr. Itard made Madame Guérin mix all the shapes up.
Then
Victor had to put them all back, each in the right compartment.

Dr. Itard’s way was a lot more trouble, but Victor did it anyhow.

One morning at breakfast time, Dr. Itard arrived, bringing a board and four metal shapes.

Dr. Itard put the shapes on the board and pointed to them.

L-A-I-T
.

Then Madame Guérin gave Dr. Itard some milk.

Dr. Itard held the milk pitcher in one hand and gave the letters to Victor with the other.

Victor put the letters back on the board like this:

T-A-I-L
.

That
didn’t seem to be what his teacher wanted. So he tried again.

L-A-I-T
.

Both Dr. Itard and Madame Guérin seemed very pleased! Beaming, Madame Guérin poured the milk into his cup.

A week later, when it was time for his walk with Madame Guérin to the Observatory Gardens, Victor brought along his little wooden bowl, the same as he always did. But, unknown to anyone, he had also brought something else.

When they got to the house where he was always given milk, he reached into his pocket, took out four metal shapes, and laid them on the table.

L-A-I-T
.

V
ICTOR COULD TELL
when his teacher was happy.

And now, he’d made his teacher very,
very
happy.

But there was something deep inside Victor that still longed for his old life.

One night when the full moon shone through his window, Victor woke and stood looking out, past the formal gardens and over the Institute walls to where the moonlit fields began.

Downstairs, Madame Guérin heard his footsteps and went quietly up to his room to see what was happening. Victor stood by the window, his forehead close to the glass, his eyes fixed on the distant fields. Now and then, he drew deep breaths and made a sad little sound.

Madame Guérin noticed it happened often when the moon was full.

Only once since he’d come to Paris had Victor been allowed outside the city. He and Itard had driven to the countryside north of Paris, where Dr. Itard was visiting some friends. In the carriage, Victor stared eagerly out one window and then another, his joy showing in his eyes and his whole body. Whenever the horses slowed and seemed about to stop, his excitement grew.

When he and Itard reached the country house, “such was the effect of these outside influences, of these woods, these hills, with which he could never satisfy his eyes, that he appeared more impatient and wild than ever,” Itard wrote. The boy could scarcely eat: he seemed to Itard to be wishing he were back in his old life, “an independent life, happy and regretted.”

After that, Dr. Itard decided the country was too much of a temptation for Victor. Instead, he would be allowed to go only to formal gardens like the Luxembourg. There, the flowers were planted in squares, the trees grew in rows, and the fountains sat at the ends of straight paths. The gardens’ “straight and regular arrangement had nothing in common with the great landscapes of which wild nature is composed,” Dr. Itard wrote. They were nature civilized. Nature tamed.

Once, in the summertime, Victor and Dr. Itard were invited to dinner at the grand country house of an elegant, beautiful, very fashionable lady named Jeanne Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier. Madame Récamier, who was known for her glittering parties, thought that meeting the famous wild boy would amuse her other dinner guests. She’d invited a general, an ambassador, a number of French aristocrats, an English lord and his lady, two duchesses, and the future king of Sweden and Norway.

Dr. Itard and Victor arrived in a carriage. Victor hopped out.

Inside Madame Récamier’s château, the summer light shone through windows hung with silk draperies. Room after room was decorated with dark mahogany furniture, bronze candleholders, and marble statues. Madame Récamier’s couch, built in the style of the lost city of Pompeii, sat beneath a “garland of flowers, escaping from the beaks of two gilt-bronze swans.” Such couches were all the rage that year.

When they reached the dining room, “Madame Récamier seated him at her side, thinking perhaps that the same beauty that had captivated civilized man would receive similar homage from this child of nature,” Madame Récamier’s biographer wrote. But “the young savage hardly heeded the beautiful eyes whose attention he had himself attracted.” Instead, the wild boy ate his dinner with “startling greed,” filled his pockets with “all the delicacies that he could filch,” and left the table.

Absorbed in their dinner-table discussions, none of the guests, it was said, even noticed Victor was gone until they heard a noise from the garden. They rushed outside to see the boy “running across the lawn with the speed of a rabbit,” dressed only in his undershirt. Then, the story goes, he ripped it off and jumped naked from tree to tree till he was lured down with a basket of peaches, . . . wrapped in a petticoat belonging to the gardener’s niece, and sent home.

The Savage of Aveyron was “bundled into the carriage that brought him,” one horrified observer reported, “leaving the guests at Clichy-la-Garenne to draw a sweeping and useful comparison between the perfection of the civilized life and the distressing picture of nature untamed.”

Madame Récamier and her guests trailed back into the château. That evening, they ate fruit and ices and played charades.

The Distressing Picture of Nature Untamed (along with, perhaps, the basket of peaches) was soon back in the city, at home with Dr. Itard and Madame and Monsieur Guérin.

And with Julie, too, on Sundays.

O
NE TIME
, during a lesson, Victor noticed that Dr. Itard was using a little metal tool to hold a piece of chalk too short to pick up with his fingers. When Victor was alone in his room, he decided to make his own chalk holder. He rummaged in a cupboard, found an old kitchen skewer, and tied a piece of chalk to it with thread.

A few days later, Dr. Itard found the tool in Victor’s room. By the “inspiration of really creative imagination,” he was clever enough to convert the kitchen skewer into a real chalk holder, Dr. Itard wrote, thrilled. It was the kind of thing that gave the doctor hope that someday, his pupil would learn to talk.

Dr. Itard had always dreamed that if Victor could learn what words were really
for
, the two of them would be able to communicate mind to mind, and “the most rapid progress would spring from this first triumph.”

But no matter how hard Dr. Itard tried, Victor didn’t seem to understand that words were the only real way to communicate.

But was that really true?
Were
words the only real way to communicate?

Each day when the students at the Institute for Deaf-Mutes walked from their classes to their workshops or streamed out into the garden to play, they laughed and chattered among themselves. But they didn’t chatter out loud.

As their heads bent toward one another, their fingers danced in intricate patterns as fast as speech. Ideas flew through the air. With their hands and eyes and faces, they could talk about their lives before they came to the Institute and their hopes for the future. They could discuss God and the universe. Each morning, they said the Lord’s Prayer in sign language.

Dr. Itard had known from the first time he’d met the wild boy that communicating with hand gestures came naturally to him.

Yet it never seemed to occur to Dr. Itard to try to teach Victor formal sign language.

Dr. Itard himself had never learned it, even though he spent more than thirty years working at a school for deaf children. Like many people in those days, he did not believe that the formal signing used by deaf people was a real language. He wanted Victor to
speak
, and to Itard, that meant speaking aloud.

As the months went by, Dr. Itard devised one lesson after another. Victor had no way of knowing that every single one of them had the same goal: that someday,
someday
, he would learn to talk.

Victor learned to read a few words, yet “this reading conveyed no meaning to him,” Dr. Itard wrote sadly.

Dr. Itard made labels:
BOOK
and
SCISSORS
and
HAMMER
. He showed Victor the labels, then told him to get what was on them. Back and forth Victor would go, from his room to Dr. Itard’s study. “He often stopped in the corridor, put his face to the window which is at one end of it, greeted with sharp cries the sight of the country which unfolds magnificently in the distance, and then set off again for his room, got his little cargo, renewed his homage to the ever-regretted beauties of nature, and returned to me quite sure of the correctness of his errand,” Itard wrote.

BOOK: Wild Boy
9.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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