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January 2020
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The Feral Children

Tripp trapp trull, originally uploaded by YlvaS.

The feral children regard me with dull, vacuous eyes as I drive by them on the road. They do not move from their spot near the river, which is littered with a jagged line of broken-down toys and rusted bicycles. The eldest is a girl of eight with clear blue eyes the color of periwinkles and long dirty blond hair that hangs listlessly down her back. The older boy is five or six. He has a thick shock of chestnut hair and arms and a torso that are browned from the sun. His eyes are brown too. The youngest boy wears a yellow mullet and a dirty, grayish diaper, which may or may not have been changed in the last few days. In one hand he clutches a ragamuffin stuffed animal of indeterminate breed and species. The toy is as gray as the diaper. He too has brown eyes.

They live in a natural shingled house on the corner of M and W roads, although they spend little time there. Their province is the entire expanse of M road, which they freely wander, sometimes as a trio with the girl in charge. At other times the boys form a duet from which to enjoy more dare devil feats, such as racing bicycles fast down the road. Sometimes the youngest boy wanders alone to the neighbor’s pond like a lost waif.

The boys’ truck-driving father was rumored to be a pedophile who locked the kids in one room while he feasted his eyes on computer porn in another. The girl’s father was one of the mother’s many itinerant boyfriends, indistinguishable from the rest.

The girl grows tired of being her brothers’ warden and occasionally rebels. Like the time she jumped on her bicycle and rode off into the night. I was out walking my dogs when I encountered an older woman with a flashlight prowling near the end of my long driveway.

“Seen a girl abouts here?” a voice from the shadows queries. “My daughter J’s kid has up and wandered off.”

“Do you mean J who lives next door?” I ask in some confusion.

“No, my daughter J who lives up to the corner.”

“Oh God. No, I’m sorry, but I haven’t,” I reply, horrified.

“Been missin’ about three hours. I best keep lookin’.” And with a curt nod, the grandmother of the feral three heads off, her flashlight flooding the dark woods like a sergeant’s search warrant.

An image of the gamine girl with lank hair comes to mind and I instinctively feel sick at the mental images of the various nefarious characters—including her bad actor stepfather—who could have abducted her.

The next day a neighbor informs me that the girl has been found. Turns out she was sick of her mother and boyfriend’s endless quarreling and decided to run away. She ended up at the house of some good Samaritans several miles away who alerted the police. The police, it is said, read the mother the riot act. The mother seems perplexed. She’d seen her daughter at 6 o’clock and had given the girl instructions to stick close to the house. When she’d checked on her again a mere three hours later (at nine o’clock) she was astonished to learn that the child had vanished.

The neighbor with the pond who lives next door to the feral children has an open-door policy with them and delights in entertaining them. She thinks the busy body concern of people who worry over much about these kids’ safety (or lack thereof) is much ado about nothing.

“I have to say that it just warms the cockles of my heart to see children behaving like children. I mean, remember The Waltons? These kids are just healthy, running around the neighborhood barefoot and happy. This is what childhood is supposed to be like.”

Several weeks later, this same neighbor calls me in a fit of rage and frustration. The four-year-old boy has been wandering around her pond again, unsupervised.

“He’s so sneaky. And he just will not hear no,” she fumes. “I told him to leave, to go straight home, and he nodded his head yes. But guess where I saw him the minute I went back inside my house? I looked out my window and there he was, sneaking back over to the pond!”

The cockles of this neighbor’s heart have apparently frozen over. The irresponsible parents of feral children may have little affinity for raising their kids, but are litigious pit bulls who would gleefully sue if any of their three drowned in an unsuspecting neighbor’s pond. Their own negligence being beside the point, of course.

Several months ago a sign was posted on the telegraph pole outside the shingled house. There was a picture of the pedophile father, along with some text that read: “Have you seen this man? He is a deadbeat who makes excuses for why he can’t support his children.” The sign and text were presumably written by the children’s mother. What she doesn’t bother to add is that she while she may support her children, she can seldom be bothered to watch them.

The mother is the black sheep daughter of a prominent town resident. She drives around in an SUV as black as her remaining teeth. Her front top teeth are conspicuously absent, a result of meth mouth, it has been rumored.

Her new husband, also curiously absent a set of front teeth, is dying of liver cancer. Despite this, he continues to drink and smoke. He’s convinced that a donor will show up in time, although he’s not even on a transplant list. He puts an old camper shell in front of the house with a “For Sale” sign on it. He has also written a price—$400, which is eventually reduced to $325. Several weeks pass. The camper shell and the sign remain.

The girl and two other boys I’ve never seen before race up my driveway yelling “horsy, horsy!” I remind them that the fence is electric and that I’m not at liberty to supervise them at the moment. I ask them not to visit the horses until I am. They regard me with blank, glassy stares before turning tail running back down the driveway.

Back in the 1970s in the small university town where I grew up, my mother would purse her lips and frown when the doorbell rang at 6 o’clock. She would be in the beginning throes of making dinner. Our family habitually ate at 8 o’clock, an anomaly in provincial Nova Scotia, where folks sat down to “supper” at 5 o’clock sharp. A mere half hour later, parents would release their children to play during the summer twilight hours, wither they would go in the neighborhood. When the doorbell rang after 5:30 p.m., it was invariably one of my (or my brother or sister’s) playmates coming over to ride bikes or play on the swing set.

“Tell them that this family eats dinner at a civilized hour,” my mother would admonish us. She put special emphasis on the word dinner.

In the local Nova Scotia vernacular, the three daily meals are breakfast, dinner and supper. “Dinner” is the big meal eaten in the middle of the day, followed by a lighter repast in the evening called “supper.” In my mother’s mid Atlantic American high society world, one’s daily bread consisted of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Supper, if it existed at all, was a crude midnight snack.

Not only were my brother, sister and I not free to run barefoot and wild after dinner, we were instructed to scorn our inferior freewheeling peers and by association, their permissive parents. My mother believed in orchestrated activities, Sunday school, nursery school, summer camp and proper decorum—the very qualities our free-range, peripatetic neighborhood brethren lacked.

My mother also believed in babysitters—and not only the kind who arrived at 7 o’clock and left at midnight after she and my father had returned from the theater, or evening cocktails, or wherever they were. She also believed in a special breed of sitters of the long-term contracting variety. My siblings and I came to refer to these women as “The Missuses.” The Missuses were a collection of women of—what was once discreetly referred to as—“a certain age.” They were stout, sturdy, serviceable widows and divorcees who lived on limited incomes, had raised at least four children of their own respectively, and were not averse to earning some additional discretionary income. Mrs. F baked lemon meringue pies, ironed my father’s shirts and apparently toilet-trained all three of us during one of my mother’s prolonged absences. Mrs. R was a long-winded divorcee who gossiped shamelessly, smoked like a chimney and never walked where she could drive. Mrs. R was my mother’s preferred contract sitter. Mrs. P, whose main drawing point seemed to be that she lived directly across the street instead of up the hill or across town (in the respective cases of Mrs. R and Mrs. F), was nevertheless employed less frequently than either of the other Missuses.

My mother despised the narrow confines of the provincial world she found herself inhabiting upon marrying my father, a college professor. She pined for the opulent life she had lead with her parents in New Jersey, and escaped to them whenever loneliness or boredom overtook her. The collective Misuses became stand-in, de facto parents for weeks at a time. Weeks during which we were shipped off to board out, like cast off orphans awaiting the promise of a new home. I don’t remember seeing my father during these times, despite the fact that we resided only a few houses away. Nor do I remember speaking to my mother on the telephone. I merely remember feeling displaced, lonely and sad, as well as maternal and protective of my five years younger sister, who would often ask when mummy was coming back.

“I don’t know,” I would answer honestly. I didn’t dare tell her that each time our mother went away I secretly feared that she would never return.

The girl wanders down the road, alone this time. She is wearing a one-piece bathing suit and ruffled skirt and is shod in scuffed-up patent leather mary janes. She kicks a pebble along the dusty road and seems oblivious to my presence several paces behind. But then abruptly she pivots, and when she faces me the corners of her mouth turn up in a saucy grin.

And when she does I feel the dormant layers of ice protecting my own feral child’s heart begin to slowly thaw and melt away.

Photo courtesy of YlvaS under The Creative Commons License.