Their terror was as nothing, however, compared to the panic that already gripped cities throughout the region. Wracked by food riots, violence between ethnic clans, turf wars between drug lords and Islamic fundamentalists, they also suffered a ferocious backlash from the Russians who had been stranded there after the Soviet Union disintegrated. Everyone was armed, and each night, along with darkness and a slight diminishment in the heat, there came eruptions of gunfire. Sometimes this signaled a bank robbery or revenge killing, sometimes a mafia wedding where guests shot off automatic weapons in drunken exuberance.
When the wolf child stumbled into this petrie dish of urban disasters, the fear was that he carried disease. Typhus, polio, leprosy and plague--illnesses long thought to have been eradicated--spread through the poorest neighborhoods, and new scourges seemed inevitable. Scavengers at the garbage dump claimed they had seen the boy eat meat too rotten and tainted for any human being. Families found him in their gardens stealing apples and cherries, and they drove him off with stones. He was accused of killing chickens and rabbits, snatching lambs and calves. Some said he disemboweled them, gobbled only their internal organs and abandoned the mutilated carcasses. Others argued that he didn't just consume farm animals, carrion and road kill. He dug up graves and devoured the dead.
Too frightened and befuddled to deal with the boy themselves, people did the unexpected. They appealed to ragtag remnants of the army. Normally, the accepted wisdom was to avoid soldiers at all costs, but this was one emergency when military firepower might help them. The terrified populace figured that if the wolf child were flesh and blood, not some ghostly figment of fevered imagination, troops could shoot him down.
The next time he materialized at the garbage dump, a team of soldiers was waiting for him. They harried the boy out onto the salt flats where blinding white crystals had hardened into a crust. It buckled under his weight, and his feet stove through the surface into damp silt. That slowed him down and exhaustion finally stopped him. A swollen pink tongue lolled from his split lips. His rib cage pumped and deflated and pumped again, each anxious in-suck of air pressing his skin tight against the wickerwork of bones.
Although they had him in the crosshairs of their rifles, the soldiers didn't fire. They could see how skinny and sick and scared he was, just a kid of eleven or twelve, with bleeding sores on his elbows and knees. Dirt, whorled and closely woven as a garment, covered his nakedness from head to foot. Cuts on his chest and face had healed over without having been cleaned, and grains of sand tattooed the scar tissue in beaded hieroglyphics. What they had taken for hair tufted down his backbone was actually mud and matted grass. For all the ungodliness of his appearance, the men believed they knew what he was--a shell-shocked survivor from the battalions of boy soldiers, a member of one of the massed divisions of cannon fodder that had been routinely dispatched to the front lines in the recent war. After a day of religious indoctrination and no military training, the kids were ordered to march across miles of open fields while, following in their footsteps at a careful distance, the regular army kept to the paths that had been cleared by these unwitting minesweepers.
Miraculously, a small number of them came through the carnage and knee-deep gore more or less alive. But they were hollow-eyed and unhinged. Wailing prayers and imprecations, jibbering suras from the Koran, they stripped off their uniforms and fled naked. The soldiers thought the boy was one of them--a mute remnant from the human wave, too wasted to do anything now except kneel in animal resignation waiting for whatever befell him next. If they brought him to the barracks, they hoped that might bring him back to his senses. But he shocked them by resisting help. When they tried to touch him, he bared his broken teeth, hissed and arched his spine. Rearing upright, he lashed at them with his hands, raking their arms and faces, tearing off ribbons of skin and leaving splinters of his filthy fingernails in their flesh. He bit them. He head-butted and bowled over one man and gnashed at his throat. It took four of them to pull him off. Then they beat him unconscious with a canteen.
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