Feral Children: A Collective History

Amber Sparks


They are raised by wolves or they are raised by apes or they are raised by gazelle or donkeys or dolphins, by dogs or goats or cats or birds or bears or even bees. They suckle at teats when tiny, but later they chew grass, lettuce, kelp, slurp pollen and search for the softest, sweetest apples littering the ground, or else learn to tear open carcasses with tiny baby teeth, to catch small fish with pudgy hands, to stalk prey on silent wobbly baby legs, baby noses sniffing out the tangy copper trail of blood.

Before they can learn wild ways, there must be a parting from the human parents: The children are cast out of the home, the village, the castle, shack, orphanage, hospital, shtetl. They are stolen from the crib. They are abandoned, unwanted, left in the woods to die. They run away. They are given to the pack, the animal mothers, to the earth, as a ritual sacrifice or in accordance with Fate or to hide the child from murderous uncle, stepmother, father, or king.

They inhabit the woods of Croatia, Romania, Denmark, Austria, Canada, Siberia, the Ukraine, Poland, Argentina, Germany. Or the wilds of Brazil, Uganda, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Indonesia, Burundi, Mauritania. Or the waters of the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, the Indian Ocean, the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Or the property-lining bushes of suburban tract housing, vast garbage dumps, hollow logs, even wide, flat rocks and the soft soil after a hard rain.

After death they can sometimes be found in constellations, scattered over the surface of the sky like seed pearls.

They speak no language at first. They are grunters, groaners, squealers, squawkers; guttural sounds grow up through their vocal cords, wild and tangled and green. They do not sound like their animal brothers and sisters. They try but cannot quite replicate the sounds the muzzle or the wings or the long nose and narrow jaw produce. There is a buzz in the ear, a slight imbalance, a tremor in the tongue with each attempt. Their animal speech is accented, a reminder that these children will not stay wild forever. Not wild and free like wind like biting like galloping and snorting and swimming and nuzzling and guzzling and piling up together in good raw wet fur smells forever.

Never forever. There comes a point, always, where the wolf-child or the goat-child or the bear-child or the monkey-child is discovered by humans. There is power in this inverse of the usual myth: A child is found, is a foundling, will be founder of the new civilization or dynasty or world. There is power in the second beginning, the tumbling out from the wild woods’ womb, the original loss glossed over and made to disappear.

And so the child is brought indoors to be tamed. The child's head is bowed, or the child's head is high, or the child's head is level, full of inherited knowledge, innate superiority. The child is taught to speak and shave and compose a sonnet and lead a people or a nation or an expedition. Sometimes the child is older or sometimes the child is difficult or sometimes the child is not willing to be torn from the pack, to be made to sit, stand, fetch, obey. Sometimes the child is no longer a child.

Sometimes the space between the child and the humans is wider than seasons. Sometimes the child grows up in two worlds, a beast-thing, snarling and spewing strange syntax, a deformed and hideous attempt at personhood. Sometimes the child creates a world to grow up in. This child is Atalanta, fast and strong and genderless. This child is Enkidu, friend and muse, inspiration to escape death. These children are Romulus and Remus, conquerors, builders of empire, firsts in a line of firsts. These children are given love tempered by fear, by worship. They are tied to the human race with a strong cord of feeling and fervor.

Sometimes there will be none of these. Sometimes there will be only a still-wild, feckless, fettered child left standing at the edge of the map, ready to push the human race into something as uncharted as it will always be.