I still remember the feeling of amazement and delight at finding out that my entry had won the Edinburgh University undergraduate short story prize. Far harder than writing it would be the public reading at a reception for the award, though the confidence instilled by winning allowed me to get through it.
It continued the theme of outsiders to which I was inexorably drawn without then really knowing why. The outsider in this case was a ‘feral child’ and the narrators, at least initially, seemed to be functioning adults trying to understand and help.
The story was later published in Flight of the Turtle, New Writing Scotland 29.
28th October 1998
Dear Doctor Velicka,
My name is Esperanza Whitman and I am a doctor at the Southern California Institute of Child Psychology in Los Angeles. I read your article about Jelik – the wolf boy of Dnestr – in the September issue of International Cortex Debates. Your piece made an enormous impression on me, for reasons which I will now recount.
Just over four years ago an extraordinary young girl entered our treatment program: a thirteen year old named Iris. Iris had been resident in the ‘city of angels’ since the day of her birth, in a run-down suburb not far from Beverley Hills. Nothing startling, until I tell you that Iris’s father kept her in a tiny locked room for her entire life. There was only a bed in the room. At night she was tied to it. In the day she was strapped to a potty. Apart from this night and day were the same, because the room was sealed from natural light. She was brought food and water but no-one spoke to her. There was a mother and a brother too, but it was the man’s will that dominated. That is until one day in 1992 when, after her husband beat her up, the mother fled to a police station with Iris and the whole story came out.
When she first entered the Institute, Iris was unable to make a sound. She would crouch in corners looking at us with huge staring eyes (her eyes are a beautiful green). Gradually, through constant attention, she became receptive to human contact. She rapidly learnt words for things around her and appeared to be making great progress towards language. Nobody was prepared when her progress suddenly stopped and even went into regression. Despite her vocabulary the concepts of grammar and sentence formation would not come. She could not go beyond words as arbitrary sounds for things, tiny stepping stones too far apart to cross a river, never mind an ocean. So the capacity for developed language – the greatest single sign of our humanity- seemed beyond her. A scan showed that her brain was stunted due to lack of stimulation of the frontal cortex. It was doubly devastating since Iris, I am sure, was meant to be an intelligent girl. When I took her out on trips I could see her grasping at connections, trying to relate this thing in the now to that thing in her memory. But the synapses were not there. Frustrated she would bang her head on walls and bite her arms. Believe me, it was hell to watch. Almost exactly a year ago she jumped from the first floor window of her dormitory. It was only luck that a tree broke her fall.
Since then the situation has deteriorated much further. Iris’s mother, after divorcing the husband, had her removed from our care and returned to the family home – the site of her abuse – for a short period. When the mother was unable to cope Iris was taken into a secure state mental institution under a different name. I had no way of knowing what had happened to her. This was very hard for me. During her care I had developed a strong emotional bond with Iris. I found it morally impossible to abandon her. After a long search I recently located her again. She was in a huge institution with hundreds of mental patients, kept in isolation and given one hour of therapy a week. This situation was intolerable to me and I took steps to ensure it did not continue.
Doctor Velicka, I write to you because I see in your work with Jelik a source of hope where there was none. In all the publicity after she was found many people called Iris a feral child. But that was wrong. Your Jelik was a feral child, brought up with wild dogs in woods and parkland near a small town in Ukraine. You say how he dug holes in the earth to bury things, rubbed himself on rough tree bark, scavenged for food in bins, and barked like a dog in many different tones. There is no comparison between that and being strapped to a potty in a dark room in Los Angeles. It’s a question of stimulus. Iris had none, Jelik plenty, just not the kind we normally think of as good. But what is good other than being able to live with yourself? We were trying to start Iris in the wrong place – ours – where language is already alienated from the natural world. It wasn’t even our fault. As trained psychologists our only perspective was sophisticated communication as the ultimate goal. But I see now that she could never be happy living in a world of language and ideas. Jelik was content was he not, even before he was ‘found’. That is my impression. Admittedly he knew no other possibility, but the life of the woods agreed with him. Do you know how many people are on anti-depressants in the United States today? How many in business suits yearn for the woods? I know you are trying to teach Jelik to be fully human and I am completely supportive of that aim. But Iris is different. Above all she must be taught that the world exists, that life is possible at a level deeper than language: a level of instinct and senses. I think there is only one person capable of teaching her that. Not me. Not you either. I mean Jelik himelf.
I am suggesting this: I bring Iris to the Ukraine. We introduce her to Jelik and the two spend time together – not pointing to animals in picture books, but in the wild, (in a controlled environment obviously) where Jelik shows her the first, raw life he led. I promise you if there is any sign of regression in his rehabilitation program, the project would be discontinued. But I firmly believe the opposite would be the case. As teacher what better boost could Jelik have than knowing that his experience was helping another human being overcome trauma. It is said also, is it not, that the truest mark of our humanity is compassion?
I cannot convey to you how much this means to me. During our time together Iris became like my daughter. I cannot bear the thought of her ending her days in misery.
Yours in faith
21 November 1998
I regret the content of my article may have give a wrong idea of my comfort in the English language. It was very corrected by a colleague who speak English. When I write this I am help only by the dictionary so many mistakes.
Esperanza, I find hardship understanding all you say in your letter. But I made a grand effort and now I understand. You want to bring the girl Iris to Ukraine where is my boy Jelik. You want that Jelik teach Iris the wild passages of childhood. I must to say I do not know. I do not know if is good idea.
In all circumstances I have problems. University in Kyev will give a way less money next year to my work. We are not sure if it continues or not.
Esperanza, Andrei Velicka is not the asking species of person. It is not my manners but this is a scientific thing. Your Institute of Southern California is rich yes. For fifteen thousand American dollars I think I can help you. But I say again I do not know if Iris is helped by this. Jelik likes animals in books now. When he makes noises like a dog is to make the people near to him laugh. But I am a man of turning cards. You must do that you think best.
Yours in faith
The reply to the reply
28th November 1998
Thank you for your kind reply. It has not been easy but I have found the money you asked for. Tomorrow Iris and I will fly to Kiev and then I think we can take a night train and arrive in Lvov the next morning. From there, travel plans are a little hazy but rest assured we will find you. Sorry to be so brief but I don’t think there is much more that I can say that I haven’t already said.
Yours in faith
* * *
Extract from Esperanza Whitman’s diary: August 1999
I’ve been dipping into my book of Elizabeth Bishop poems a lot lately -so many about travel experience. One poem called The Map goes like this:
Norway’s hare runs south in agitation
Profiles investigate the sea, where land is
I don’t quite understand that last bit but it’s a beautiful idea. It gave me this idea for how to start the book.
The country of Ukraine is shaped like a dragon with a blunted horn and a stumpy wing. It is a dragon that is trying to tear itself free of Russia, with Moldova tucked under its chin and Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia balanced on its head like books on the head of a girl learning the etiquette of deportment. The city of Lvov in the west is the dragon’s eye, and to the south a range of mountains runs across the snout like a muzzle. At the foot of the forested lower slopes of these mountains there is a small town whose main feature is a redundant aluminium plant where most of the men used to work. Unemployment is high, but not quite as high as it was, and lying around on benches drinking in the daytime is once again becoming a minority activity. It is a hot, dry continental summer and the ground in the park beneath the ash trees is baked and cracked. The streets are dusty and the wall of the old factory that was painted blue and yellow to celebrate independence is peeling away like the skin of a great reptile. The youth of the town now think of going west into Germany, France, Italy. There is a burgeoning black market in fake EU passports. The existence of an unusual community in the woodland several miles to the south of the town has slipped back into forgetfulness. It came to wider attention on two separate occasions, both years ago now. Once when a few of the first Chernobyl children born with deformities went there. And again the following year when it took in the famous wolf boy of Dnestr.
Yes, I think I could make it good. Well with the material I have to work from it should be. Not that it could ever be published. The only way would be to put it in a safe box with instructions ‘to be opened in a hundred years time’ or something like that. Publicity spoils everything. Andrei doesn’t even like me writing in this diary. ‘Oral is best’, he says. ‘Tongue lies are not running so easy as the pen’. He favours the use of a dictaphone.
Transcript of Dictaphone recordings, translated from the Ukrainian
Transcript 1: 21st August 1999
The set-up is this: the site of an ancient quarry has created a depression in the wooded landscape like a natural amphitheatre. In the depression the vegetation is wild. A stream flows past its open end. A path runs right round the rim of this naturally enclosed area and at that path’s highest point, at the head of the old quarry rock-face, there is the hide: a camouflaged observation point. You must not get the wrong the idea – the enclosure is entirely suggestive – there is no ten foot high electric fence. Andrei and Esperanza are not conducting some grotesque Big-Brother style experiment. The observed are free to come and go, just as are the observers.
Transcript 2: 25th August 1999
She was so cold when she arrived, poorly protected by cheap furs acquired in second hand costume shops – a foolish attempt to blend in. But now the temperature is sultry even at night and she’s quite comfortable lying out here in the roofless ruined bunker we have made into a hide. If she rolls round onto her back she would see the stars make a ceiling more spectacular than any painter in history could create. But she doesn’t roll over. She nudges my baggy-jumpered, masculine form and gets me to pass the binoculars across. I whisper something and pat her bottom, rise and rootle in the rucksack for the cheesy snacks I always carry. Letting this female come from America was the best thing that could have happened. Though I wasn’t sure at first it has been a thrill to help her – to help both of them. She is watching our two proteges now through the infra-red binoculars. I know what they are doing: naked together they are scratching each others’ backs with peeled strips of tree bark. Faintly I can hear the sound of them humming melodies – one starts and then the other joins in harmony. Soon they will make love, like any other animals, and though I feel like a voyeur I will want to watch them anyway. As will she, ever eager to record things. We will end up fighting over the binoculars as usual.
Language barriers were a problem at first but in the hide under the night sky silence seems so much more logical. In the morning things will be different, less magical. I will be back in the classroom and she…what will she be doing? Will she join me, boosted by the confidence tonight gives her? Or will she go off into the run-down town again, voraciously photographing everything she sees? She is still riveted by the newness of the place, I can tell. Both the American women are. And yet they have changed things since they came. With their help we have discovered things. We have all advanced immeasurably. But who other than Andrei Velicka could have seen that this was the way to do it?
I look at her now, slyly, and make a grab for the binoculars. Hissing at me she manages to hold on to the right ocular and we grapple, each trying to loosen the other’s grip. This will not go into International Cortex Debates. I press her face into the ground hard and when she goes limp in submission I begin stroking her coarse American hair, putting the binoculars to my eyes with my free hand. I look down into the gulch.
Andrei and Esperanza are rubbing dirt into each others’ bodies now. The melodies have stopped and I can see their lips moving, forming words.