A Perspective on Feral Children

“Contempt prior to investigation is what enslaves a mind to Ignorance.”

–William Paley

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.

–Albert Einstein

“Everyone is a genius.  But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

– frequently attributed to Albert Einstein, but this may, in fact, be false.

 

Safran’s first impressions of the girl were of a form shrouded in shadow; she named her Nyx, after the goddess of night.  The name is more of a reflection on Safran, and the place she was in when she encountered Nyx, than it is on the character of Nyx herself.

The goddess Nyx, daughter of Khaos (Chaos, air), is an imposing, if little known figure in mythology.  A quick purview of most texts on Greek or Roman (Nox) mythos grants little more than a few paragraphs, and most of that information is little better than a family tree.  She is listed, however, as one of the first gods; Homer claims that Zeus himself feared her, and from Homer’s account of the matter, we gain the insight that her rage is roused at a threat to one of her many children.  In this instance, the child was Hypnos (sleep), but Nyx also is reported to be the mother of the Fates, Furies, Thanatos (death), Hemera (day, dawn), among many other well and lesser known gods.

Nyx the character bears little to no similarity to her namesake.  She does not spawn sleep, death, or any other form of destruction, but holds instead a steadfast fascination for life and its nurture.  Still, for all the reader knows, Nyx might as well have come from chaos itself; Nyx is a “feral” child.

“Feral” children isn’t a term I particularly care for, hence the quotation marks.  Certainly the phrasing implies that the child has grown without the care of society or cultural influence, and while this is true, it also infers the unpleasant image of a hirsute, scrambling, animalistic “raised by wolves” individual, who is only waiting for the right specialist to come along and reform the unfortunate “creature” into an “acceptable” human being.  We, as “civilized” beings, seem to decry the idea that these people cannot be simply molded at whim into gross approximations of ourselves.  After all, how can anyone know the true definition of happiness, if they have not experienced our version of happiness for themselves?  Aren’t we doing them a favor?

I doubt it.

The depiction of feral children in fiction and film has often been dramatically removed from reality.  It seems inevitable that the child, who is usually somehow lost or abandoned in the woods, only to be raised by some animal group or another (wolves, anyone?), will be stumbled across by some well-meaning companion who will strive for, and eventually secure, their assimilation into society.  Few authors bother with that pesky “critical period” of language development, where any child not exposed to speech before the age of seven becomes increasingly unlikely to be able to string sentences together, especially in a grammatically correct or complex way.  I prefer to believe that this is a result of the brain’s plasticity, or the ability of the human mind to shape itself to its best advantage for survival in any given environment.  After all, if a human loses a finger, then the brain will eventually incorporate the space used for the mobility and sensations of that finger to add increased support for the other four fingers on that hand.  So, when a child is not exposed to language within a reasonable time span, they use the brain space for other, more pressing, environmental concerns.  Whatever the case, profoundly abused and neglected children, such as Genii, to name a famous example, display dramatically different results on tests of brain activity from those of normal children.  How is a child, or even an adult in such a circumstance, to appear normal?

Should we even strive for that?

Hopefully, if one is a parent or mentor of a child that is different, either from mental illness, some cognitive “impairment”, or other disorder that may impact the ability to act in line with social norms, one attempts to do their best to ease the child’s struggles, to give them the best hope of a normal life, and to give them the tools to achieve happiness in spite of the fact that the child is unconventional.

At first, I didn’t understand Nyx at all.  I tried to force her to be what she was not; I did not bother to see who she was as a person, or who she was meant to be.  I’m ashamed to say that I bullied her, that I cajoled, and screamed, and begged, all in the name of turning her into something she was not, and will never be.  I loved her in my own self-serving way; I told myself I wanted her to be whole, and “normal”.  She could grow and change, all to fit my whims and needs.  I did not think to embrace her strengths, or to offer her the nourishment to become the best version of herself.  I tried to beat her into the shape that fit a common mold.

For a very long time, I missed a valuable lesson.  Maybe it is a truth.

When I discovered that Nyx fit the label of “feral child” I sought more information on the topic.  I was horrified to discover how they had been described, viewed, and designated throughout history; I was traumatized by their fates.  The picture painted was far from rosy, even if humanity sometimes viewed them in a tragic romanticized haze.  What galled me the most was the “scientific” view of the differences in brain activity.  It was one thing to use feral children (“the forbidden experiment”) as an argument for nature vs. nurture, but quite another to argue that they were mentally deficient, either as a result of their circumstances or because they were plunged into said circumstances because their parents resented their handicaps in the first place (I say it’s a shoddy excuse for abuse or neglect, and the parents’ excuses unverifiable, and probably hogwash, at that).  The implication placed in the tone and phrasing of these reports was that feral children were somehow less, simply because their talents and skills did not expand to the scope of linguistic skill.  Yet few of the children in the videos and texts displayed a lack of intelligence; they seemed, to me, to learn at a remarkable rate.  One child, purportedly, indicating a disdain for cooked food when it was placed in front of him, jumped in a nearby water supply, and caught his own supply, tool free, in less than five minutes.  He offered to share.  Some children displayed astounding climbing, running, and jumping abilities. In fact, most humans living in a first world country today would stand a scant chance of survival if placed in similar conditions to those that these children lived in before their discovery by neighboring townspeople.  If you’re wondering, none of these children were adopted by animals, although they might have learned some skills by observing them.  Does that strike you as lacking in intelligence?

What is intelligence anyway?  I’ve yet to see a test that accurately measures intelligence.  It seems, honestly, as if the tests measure how well we’ve adapted in an educational sense to a particular culture and society in relation to our age.  There are other ways of viewing the world, of adapting to it, of interacting with it.  Those of us who “fit in” may have difficulty understanding the perspectives and actions of those who are different from us, and comprehension becomes an even more demanding task when others cannot communicate with us in the way we are accustomed to.

All of us are a little bit different.  Sometimes, if we are lucky, our differences are seen as skills rather than deficits.  Can you imagine an environment or situation where schizophrenia, or Asperger’s, or any number of other supposed issues might be positive adaptations?  Do you think there might be skills or thinking patterns associated with depression or other conditions that may actually be helpful in certain fields of study or activities?  Or perhaps, aren’t there things that these people teach us, ways in which they make us better simply by existing and being themselves?

I no longer want to force Nyx into that mold.  The way she sees the world is unique and beautiful.  I refuse to propagate the idea that there is only one right way to be.  Barring certain unsociable acts (e.g. murder), individuals, even cultures, who are different from us broaden our scope of thought and perception.  They grant us new lenses from which to view the world, and enlighten us as to the variability, adaptability, and resilience of humanity, and in fact, life itself.

 

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An Excerpt

The following is the first part of Chapter One of my untitled novel.  The story is raw and young yet, despite having danced through my head for the past fourteen years of my life.  I will not be posting the entirety of the work, unless, of course, having finished it, and gone through multiple rewrites and edits, it fails to find any favor with the publishing and editing “gods”.  Before anyone reads further, I owe those who stumble across the blog a DISCLAIMER: this is not a pretty novel.  It is a dark fantasy, and as the word dark suggests, its nature often tends towards the shadowy ends of life that some brighter spirits may find unpalatable, depressing, or even morbid.  There will, at times, be descriptions of a bloody or violent nature, or representations of psychological turmoil, and if things of this sort tend to upset you, please skip this post.  Those of you, however, who enjoy fantasy or fairy tales may also be aware that fairy tales were not originally meant for children as they so often are today, but were actually often gory, visceral, very adult affairs.  The fey themselves, originally, were far removed from the tiny, sweet, pixie-dust spraying creatures represented in popular children’s cartoons today.  My novel was not originally intended as a salute to these old tales; I had diagramed the plot and was several chapters into the effort when I finally realized that I was rewriting a classic plot.  I had created such convolutions that at first the pattern was unrecognizable even to myself.  I knew I had borrowed from mythology in the overarching theme that an attempt to thwart destiny very often creates the destiny that was so feared in the first place, but I was not aware that I was recreating one of the first fairy tales I ever read.  It’s ironic, perhaps, that my efforts to avoid blatantly stealing a plot led me to a more couched, hidden one, but there you have it.  I spent a tremendous amount of time second guessing myself but ultimately decided to run with this unforeseen development.  If I am going to exploit one fairy tale, I might as well pay homage to some others in the meantime.

Deep breath.

—1—

            There was a monster, her grandmother would begin, and that monster lived all alone, walled in by stone, circled by sand, and magic, deep magic, for only the very best and brightest of magicians could hold such a savage beast at bay, away from the fragile world, and if their magic ever failed, and that monster got out, why, that would be the death of them all.

The monster had skin like rotting onions, and its fangs and claws perpetually dripped with the blood of hundreds of maidens, for that was what a monster like that liked to eat best of all.  The monster did not just eat its victims, no, it tortured them, and when it had tortured them, it drew out their entrails while they, too exhausted, too badly used to scream, simply watched, and when it had done that, it drained their blood and slaked itself on it.  The floors of that place where it lived, cried her grandmother, the very courtyard, lay thick with the dried out husks of its victims, so that with every shift of the monster’s feet one could hear the crunch of brittle flesh and bone.

“It pains me to talk about it,” her grandmother would insist, but she would tell the tale to anyone who would listen, and she would tell it often, as often as she cried for more tea to sooth her listeners’ souls and warm their fragile hearts, and her granddaughter would bring it, and pour it into the little porcelain cups that her grandmother’s daughter, her mother, had given her when times had been better.

Today the granddaughter gently set her cakes, delicately iced and resplendent in roses and vines on the lace tablecloth, and let tea cascade, a steaming, fragrant waterfall, to a rippling pool in the company’s cup.

“I’m such a gentle person, you know,” murmured her grandmother apologetically, while lifting a stray handkerchief to blot elegantly at her eyes, “and this story does pain me so.  But you ought to know, dear, you really ought to know.  Having daughters of your own and all.  I’ve heard there’s a man who pays extravagant prices for young girls, pretending to offer them honest work, so that he can slake the monster’s bloodlust.  And you must know the truth, the whole truth, so that you and your daughters never fall prey to such a dreadful fate.”

“Why, how horrible!” gasped the guest.  “Can such a thing really exist?  And to think of…of, well…to think of someone actually feeding it.  People, I mean.  It’s so crude.”

“Oh, yes, my dear, I quite agree.  But apparently it’s the only way to appease the thing, to keep it from testing the limits of it’s cage.  And there are so many greedy low people willing to accept the money and look the other way, you know.  People not quite so refined as yourself.”

“Or yourself, of course, Ebba.”

Ebba, the grandmother, smiled and nodded sagely in acknowledgement.  “It’s very kind of you to say so.”

“And yet I still don’t understand.  If such a thing exists, why not simply kill it and save us all?”  The mother of young girls, aroused at this news of a new threat to her children, insisted, it seemed, on being skeptical in hope of defending her small progeny by the simple act of denial.

But her host had other ideas.  “Exists? I assure you, Charlotte, this creature is as real as you or I.  Nine years ago, in the most hostile and barren of the king’s land, he had a fortress built, so hastily and out of whatever stone he could find that it looks, from a distance, like a mottled vase botched at the pottery wheel.  He surrounded it with three walls, and covered the outer one, too, with so many spines and needles and blades that it bristles like a porcupine.  There are no doors, but I’m told instead that the laborers who built it were commanded to seal it while still working within, and when they brought the monster to it’s prison, the laborers were still there.  Well, you can guess what happened to them.  My son was…”  Ebba stared, mournfully, at a pink rosette that beckoned cheerfully from a confection on her plate, and Charlotte, struck momentarily speechless, waited helplessly for her to continue. “…But I’m sure you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing.  Some say that they were sealed in to distract the monster long enough to bind it still further with spells.   As to why they don’t kill the thing, well, it simply cannot be killed.”

Ebba’s granddaughter, returning, unnoticed in her absence, and disregarded at her reappearance, offered up a tray of miniscule cucumber sandwiches and fluffy pastries to Charlotte’s elbow.

“It cannot…” whispered the guest, oblivious to the child at her side, “…die?”

Ebba sniffed, fidgeted uncharacteristically with a silk napkin, elaborate with azure embroidery.  Finally she conceded, “Perhaps it can die.  But no one has ever been able to destroy it.”

They were all silent for a moment: Charlotte, suddenly seeing shadows at the base of her tea cup, and Ebba’s clouded eyes fixed intently on her guest’s face.  The child’s arm trembled, her fingers quivering with exhaustion, but her eyes saw only night growing in the cracks between the floorboards, sliding out from underneath the tablecloth, growing in the folds of her grandmother’s skirts.

Belatedly Charlotte recognized the dimness gathering in the hollows of her saucer and realized what it meant.  “Why, me!” her voice did not sound like her own, it was so forcedly gay, “But I’ve completely forgotten the time!  It’s quite late, and your tale so engrossing I didn’t notice the dark creeping up on us.”

“Oh, but you’ll stay for supper, I hope?  An old lady like me, by herself in this house, gets lonely with nothing but spiders for company.  I’d be delighted if you would stay, my dear.”  The tiny plates on the shaking tray rattled ominously, and Charlotte glanced over at last, surprised, to be transfixed by the oddity of a small shivering being entirely swaddled in cloth, and clinging desperately to it’s tray.  It bends it’s head, she thought, as if readying itself for the blow of the executioner’s axe.

“I…”  Charlotte appraised the mysterious creature again, forgetting for the moment the question at hand.  “Who, may I ask, is this, then?”  And hearing the distressing chatter of plate and glass, she swept the platter and its contents from it’s bearers grasp to a safe resting place on the table.

“A servant,” Ebba replied briskly, and did not mention blood, as she had so often that evening, or the way it drew, in this case, bonds between her and the child she spoke of, “who is now dismissed.  No doubt she has other duties that need looking after.”

Ebba watched her daughter’s child only long enough to insure that she turned around and headed for the door, but Charlotte saw the child peek over her shoulder as she passed the door jam, and guessed that the child could see less of her than she could see of it, despite the billowing linen, like a shroud, that held it together.

“Her face…”  gasped Charlotte, a few moments later, when she thought the apparition was out of earshot.

“Yes.  So unfortunate.  Deformed from birth, I’m afraid.  And clumsy with it.  She falls often.  She keeps hidden most of the time.  Out of shame.”  Ebba was empathy personified.  “You won’t gossip about her, will you?  It must be so hard, to have such a countenance.”

Charlotte nodded dutifully, disoriented by the horrors she had glimpsed that last hour.  “Of course.  I wouldn’t wish to hurt anyone.”

“Thank you, my dear.  But won’t you stay for dinner?  I don’t believe you’ve given me an answer.  You hold me in exquisite suspense.”

Ebba smiled, but the darkness caught in the folds of her chin and the cracks of her teeth so that to the eyes of her guest she frowned and grimaced at the same time. I’ve gone morbid, Charlotte guessed, from that sordid tale.  First the child and now this.  She found she was gripping the leg of the table in an effort to keep herself from bolting out the door.

“I…I appreciate your offer, but…my family is waiting for me.”

“A pity.”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps another time?”

“Of course.”  The reply, a moment too late for courtesy, and Ebba’s cloudy eyes became thunderheads.

“Allow me to show you out then,” coaxed the gracious host.