When I was seven, a few months after Mother’s operation, my parents decided to take separate vacations. Mother took my older sister, Alex, and my younger brother, Stevie, back to Illinois to visit our grandparents. Father took my oldest sister, Horse, and me to Zermatt, Switzerland, to ski. I did not understand, at the time, that they were fighting. I thought it was a logical thing: the red-haired children to go with the red-haired mother; the dark-haired children to go with the dark-haired father. But it was, in fact, a surgical thing, an attempt to repair what was perhaps already beyond repair.
Horse was nearly eleven, at the time. Her real name was Sarah, but Father—for reasons that no one could remember—had long ago given her the nickname of “Horse.” She did not have big teeth or a long face. She was not tall for her age. She loved horses, but that followed after the nickname. The only explanation that ever made any sense to me was that she ate like a horse. She would stuff herself till she was nearly comatose—the more exotic the food, the better, though she never grew fat. In fact, her legs and arms looked frail, bony, like a horse’s, and with her perpetually dark, puffy eyes, people might, if anything, have thought she was undernourished.
We left Milan—where we had been living ever since Father’s insurance company had transferred us—the day after Mother left for the States. The train ride to Zermatt took more than five hours. Father spent most of that time standing by an open window in the companionway, drinking and smoking his thick, pungent cigars. Horse had her nose buried in a book, while I nibbled continuously at a giant Toblerone bar Father had given me, pressing my head up against the cool soothing glass of the window to watch the muddy fields fly by.
Before boarding the train, Horse had told me that Mother and Father were fighting, that they might not stay together. The news had frightened me, but I did not really understand it, did not understand how a family could be split into smaller pieces. The bonds seemed atomic to me, unbreakable. I knew that Father traveled all the time, passing from one meeting to another, one crisis to another, that when he returned home he was generally exhausted and angry. I knew that Mother was sick all the time, that she had not wanted to come to Milan, had not wanted to be left alone for weeks on end in a country where she knew no one and understood nothing. But what did that mean? All fathers were angry. All mothers were sick. All families existed, as ours did, in a cold and wearisome fog.
I worried more about how we would survive this trip, how Horse and I would keep Father from getting angry, how Mother would take care of herself and Alex and Stevie. She had been sick ever since we came to Milan, overcome with headaches, stomach pains, nausea. The Italian doctors had run their battery of tests on her but were never able to find the problem. They took out her appendix, just to be safe. They removed her gall bladder. They treated her for migraine and ulcers, gave her Valium. When finally she had the hysterectomy, they were sure they had found the source of her troubles: a uterus scarred and bleeding and full of fibroids. Mother hobbled around our apartment for weeks, marveling over her miracle cure, basking in Father’s attentions. Then Father began his business travels again; Mother’s pains returned. She retreated to her bed and the oppressive gloom quickly wrapped itself around our lives again, a stubborn, immovable haze.
It was Horse who fed us, Horse who bathed us, Horse who dressed us and took us to school and put us to bed. It was Horse who took us to the doctor and dentist, dragging us through the giant puzzle of Milanese buses and subway stations. She hated doing these things, hated the fact that we could not take care of ourselves. And she did not have the patience to comfort or reassure us if we became upset. She was not a little mother. She was more like a cat tormented by yapping, orphaned puppies.
When the train arrived in Zermatt, it was night. I felt bloated and queasy from the chocolate. Father and Horse were both tired, irritable. Even the taxi—a horse-drawn sleigh that moved in a cloud of snowflakes, the streetlights and skiers and snow-burdened shops passing us in a ghostly diorama—could not improve our mood.
At the hotel, the desk clerk could not find our reservations. Father berated him until the manager appeared and gave us another room, but when the bellboy led us upstairs, there was someone else in the room.
Father threw his bag on the floor, looked as if he might hit the bellboy.
“What is it with you people?” he shouted at him. “Are you stupid? I reserved a room two weeks ago and here you are playing games with me!”
The bellboy, who was only thirteen or so, dropped the bags and ran off, leaving us stranded in the hallway. Father kicked at the luggage, leaned with his palms flat against the wall, as if he were trying to push it over. Horse gave me a warning look, but I knew when to be quiet.
The manager finally appeared and showed us to another room. Father disappeared into the shower, and Horse clipped a tie on me and helped me into my blazer. When Father was ready, we went down to the restaurant, a dark, candle-lit hall full of immaculately set tables and prickly chandeliers. The maître de led us to a table in the corner, pulled one of the plush, velvet-seated chairs out for Horse, who giggled and flopped into it as if he had offered her a throne.
“Can we have oysters?” she pleaded, once she had had a chance to devour the menu. “I love oysters.”
“You’ve never even had them,” Father said.
But Horse begged and Father was too tired to argue. The oysters arrived quickly, laid out like scarabs on a bed of lettuce. Horse lifted one to her mouth, let it glide onto her tongue, beaming as if she were a starving child eating her first meal. Father put some on my plate, but I told him I was not hungry.
“You had nothing but chocolate all day,” he growled. “Eat them.”
“I don’t like oysters,” I complained.
“I’m not going to have you eating junk this entire trip,” he said. “Now eat them.”
I picked up one of the oysters and tipped it to my lips, my head suddenly filled with the scent of brine and decaying shell. I tried to chew the meat without tasting, but the nausea struck quickly, an avalanche pushing up against my heart and lungs. I retched and pieces of oyster fell like tinsel from my mouth.
Father slapped his silverware against the table. “That’s it!” he said. “Get out! I don’t want to even see you right now.”
I scrambled from my seat, ran through the lobby, out into the snow, my stomach rising again. I heaved water, chocolate, bits of oyster, then, when the spasms had passed, wandered across the street to lie down in a drift. I would die there, I thought. I would bury myself under the snow, make them search for days until they found me, blue and frozen, my clothes welded to my skin.
I watched the clouds scrape away pieces of the moon, the snow slowly seeping through my pants and jacket. The cold soon became unbearable, but just as I was about to leave, I heard a rattling noise in the alley across the street. I sat up, smelled smoke and mildew drifting like pollen through the air, spied a shadow in the alley, a boy crouched beside one of the garbage cans, half-illuminated by the moon and street lamps. Smoke rose from his mouth. Hair, dark and slick as seaweed, hung to the middle of his back. A heavy wool sweater peeked out of the tears in his jacket, and his pants, in tatters, revealed a second pair underneath. He had no hat, no gloves, only a ragged pair of boots on his feet.
The boy looked at me, showed me his teeth, pointed and sharp as icicles. I was afraid he might attack me, but he only stared for a few minutes, then reached back into the garbage can, keeping one eye on me. He picked out several dark lumps and dropped them into his nylon sack, then ran off into the darkness.
I did not know what to think. I had sometimes seen men and women, in Milan, take their meals from garbage cans, but this seemed a different thing, a matter beyond homelessness. I sat there for several minutes, trying to decide whether I should tell anyone, but Horse suddenly appeared under one of the street lamps, searching for me. I knew she would be angry if she found me lying there, so I quickly pulled myself out of the snowdrift and ran over to her.
Father had gone to the lounge for a nightcap, she said. She had been charged with putting me to bed. On our way to the room, I told her about my encounter with the boy. She refused to believe me, at first, but eventually decided I was telling the truth.
“He’s probably a runaway,” she said, and from the tone of her voice I gathered there could be no creature more exciting than a runaway.
The next morning, Father was in a much better mood. Horse helped me into my ski clothes, and after breakfast we took a cable car to the base of the Furi-Blaumatten slope. The car was crowded. Father struck up a conversation with a thin, dark-haired Italian woman wearing black ski-pants and a sweater banded with reindeer. She had large breasts and hair bunched into a small beehive on top of her head and she spoke with a slight but pleasant accent.
“She probably thinks she looks like Audrey Hepburn,” Horse said to me. I had no idea who Audrey Hepburn was, but it was clear to me that Horse did not like the woman, so I tried to dislike her, too.
The cable car terminated at the base lodge, a giant shark’s tooth of wood and glass, surrounded by an enormous deck. Fifty yards away, two T-bars cut noisily through the trees and hillsides. Horse and I went together on one T-bar; Father and the woman, Sophia, followed behind on another.
We had not gone more than halfway when my safety strap suddenly caught beneath my ski and I fell, taking Horse with me. The two of us rolled into Father, who managed to stop us and push us aside. He did not get off the lift, but called over his shoulder, “Meet us at the bottom!” and continued on.
We had fallen just below the tree line. The little map Horse carried showed the intermediate slope lay more than a mile to the east. We would have to thread our way through the pine trees to get to it and Horse was furious.
“You’d better keep up, because I’m not waiting for you,” she said and skied away into the trees.
I hurried after her and, for half an hour, we slid and poled and stumbled our way through the woods, sinking into drifts, stumbling over dead branches. Horse was soon a hundred yards ahead of me, and when I finally caught up with her, she was sitting on a fallen tree, resting.
“Look,” she whispered, motioning for me to be quiet. Ten yards below us, still smoldering, were the remains of a campfire. All around it lay wrappers and pieces of cellophane and empty biscuit boxes, even bones, scattered in the snow.
“I’ll bet it’s that runaway,” Horse said. She scanned the trees, as if he might be hiding up there, then searched the ground for footprints. When she found none, she decided we should wait and see if he appeared. We scooped out a hollow behind the dead tree and lay there for twenty minutes. The boy did not appear, but when we got up to leave, Horse discovered one of her skipoles was missing. We searched everywhere but could not find it.
The trip back to the lodge took nearly two hours and when we finally reached it, we found Father and Sophia wandering back and forth through the ski racks, calling our names. Sophia spotted us first and seemed overjoyed to have found us, but Father was livid. Had Sophia not been there, I am sure he would have taken us back to the hotel.
We ate lunch in the lodge. Sophia asked us all sorts of questions—how old we were, what we liked to do. Horse answered in curt, distracted sentences, gazing around the room constantly as if Sophia did not exist. I could feel Father watching her, trying to determine whether she had crossed the border between shyness and disrespect. But Horse knew where that line lay.
Later, Sophia asked me whether we had been scared in the woods, and I told her about the snow reaching to my waist in places and about the campfire we had stumbled upon.
“Oh, but this is wonderful!” Sophia said. “You have found the boy’s home.”
“What boy?” Father asked.
“The wild boy,” Sophia said. “He live in the mountains. He come to Zermatt and the other villages at night and he steals food and clothings. Many people have seen him.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Father said.
“It is true, Girard,” Sophia said. “A month ago, Signoro Taugwalder—the baker—he find the boy stealing from his garbage. He catches him, but the boy bites signoro’s hand. A very bad bite, almost through the bones. The boy, he runs back in the mountains and Signoro Taugwalder has to go to hospital.”
Father was not interested in the wild boy. When we had finished lunch, he and Sophia returned to the slopes, but Horse and I were confined to the lodge, our punishment for having lingered in the woods. We spent an hour discussing the wild boy, Horse now intrigued more than ever and formulating all sorts of plans for trapping him. I felt the same excitement, but I was not sure I wanted to trap a boy who could bite through your hand.
We bought some candy and hot chocolate and played the pinball machines. Once the money was gone, there was nothing to do but stare out the windows and watch the skiers go by. A kind of gloom came over me then, slowly, the dark wooden beams of the lodge seeming too close, the smoke from the fireplace thick, oppressive. I watched the ski patrol drag an empty stretcher past the window and I remembered the afternoon Horse and I had come home, how Mother had been lying on the bathroom floor, shivering, blood on the toilet, on her legs and nightgown. Horse had called the ambulance, but when she asked me to help her move Mother to the bed, I could not. I could not stand to look at her, to think about her. My arms and legs had turned to glass and I felt if I moved, if I touched anyone—Mother most of all—I would shatter.
The rest of our week passed in a brighter, more flurried way, as if time, like the mountain air, had been thinned and purified by altitude. Father was suddenly happier and more patient than we had seen him in a long time. He let us ride on the tops of his skis and pulled Horse and me behind by our ski-poles. He entered an amateur race and came in fifth, Sophia and Horse and I screaming and cheering for him at the finish line. Sophia took us ice-skating at the municipal rink and swimming at the spa. When Father was resting one afternoon, she brought us to the cinema to see Pinocchio and treated Horse to a riding lesson at a local stable, something Horse had always wanted to do.
It was clear to Horse, and to a lesser extent to me, that Sophia wanted us to like her. But Horse would not allow herself to do that. She was polite to Sophia, showed the proper respect and gratitude—Father would not allow anything less—but she kept her distance. And when we were alone, she would let loose a stream of anger and spite towards Sophia—not as if she had stored up these thoughts all day, but as if she needed to perform this exercise to remind her where her real duty lay.
“She wants to be our mother,” she said to me one night, tugging my sweater off with complete disregard for my ears. Father and Sophia had gone out dancing. “But she’s not. And if she tries to be, I’ll kill her. I really will.”
I shared in these spite sessions, out of loyalty to Horse and to Mother and perhaps the excitement of being in Horse’s confidence, but I could not really feel the way she did. Mother was the Earth; Sophia the Moon. Both beautiful and enchanting, but also separate and distinct. One could never become the other. I pretended to dislike Sophia, for Horse’s sake, but I did not see the need and, often, in the face of Sophia’s kindness and good nature, forgot entirely.
We did not see any more signs of the wild boy. Father dismissed him, convinced we had imagined everything, but Sophia defended us.
“The wild boy exists, Girard,” she said one evening, as we were seated with twenty other people around a large table, five heavy, glazed pots of cheese bubbling in front of us. Horse was dipping pieces of bread in and out of our pot as fast as she could and piling them on her plate. When she had enough, she would pop them into her mouth, one after the other, then start again. I was eating the bread by itself. I did not like cheese.
“Signoro Taugwalder,” Sophia went on, “he says the polizia know where the boy comes from. His family live in the mountains, very poor people. They have I think seven bambini—six boys, one girl. But the mother dies, and the father, he becomes very angry. He drinks, and when he is drinking he hits the children. Soon there is no money. Winter is very bad, and when the snow is gone, the police go to the cabin. They find the father and three boys, all dead. Then they find another boy in the snow, and one who has fallen off the mountain. But still, there are two missing. So the police think this wild boy is one of them.”
“Impossible,” Father replied. “No kid could survive that long in these mountains.”
Sophia shrugged. “Things are possible, Girard, all kinds of things. Not just what you believe. Isn’t that right, Sarah?”
Horse scowled. During Sophia’s story, she had stopped shoveling fondue into her mouth, though there were a dozen pieces left on her plate. She now seemed disinclined to talk to anyone. I thought, at the time, that she was simply annoyed with Sophia. But, later, I realized it was the boy’s story that had upset her, that she had heard things no one else had heard.
On Friday night, the resort held a Festival of Lights at the base lodge, with a party and bonfire and awards for all the skiers who had raced during the week. Father did not want us to come to the festival, but there was to be a parade of torches down the main slope and Horse and I desperately wanted to see it. We begged and begged until finally, with some prodding from Sophia and a promise from Horse to have us both in bed by ten, he gave in.
When we arrived at the base lodge that evening, a huge crowd had gathered inside and outside. Father and Sophia went to the bar, while Horse and I bought some hot chocolate and waited on the patio for the sun to go down. By nine o’clock, the slopes were pitch dark. Bach came blaring out of the loudspeakers and we saw lights begin to flicker at the top of the mountain.
The parade started as a knot of orange at the crest, as if the sun had suddenly decided to come back up, then spilled down and across the slope, blanketing the peak in flames, transforming the mountain into a burning cone of paper. The flames thinned, split into twin threads of light, snaked and crisscrossed their way down the hill, until finally they metamorphosed into the slender, gliding shadows that gathered around the bonfire and lit it with their torches.
Horse and I ate by the bonfire, watching the flames bite and tear through the splintered wood. Horse went back for seconds, and while she was gone, an American couple produced several bags of marshmallows—a novelty in Europe at that time—and offered them to everyone. I found a stick, impaled four marshmallows onto it and quickly thrust them into the fire. Just as they were beginning to bubble and singe, I spied Horse on the other side, staring into the woods. I walked over and offered her a marshmallow, but she shushed me, pointed into the trees. Thirty or forty yards away, I could see a pair of eyes gleaming back at us. When Horse stepped into the trees, the eyes vanished. When she stepped back again, they returned.
“Let’s get some food,” she whispered to me.
We raced back to the lodge, amassed as many meatballs and wieners and tiny quiches as we could fit onto four plates, then hurried back to the woods. We could not find the wild boy, but we set two of the plates down as far under the trees as we dared go, then squatted a few yards away in the snow.
Several minutes passed. The eyes appeared finally, hovering at the limit of our vision, then slowly moving towards us. Soon we could make out the wild boy himself, dark and shadowy under the trees, shuffling towards the plates like a small bear. He looked thinner than I remembered, his jacket stained and ragged and ready to fall off of him. When he reached the food, he sniffed and poked at it, took a tiny taste, then began stuffing food in great fistfuls into his mouth, all the while keeping his eyes on us.
When he was done, Horse slowly advanced towards him with the other plates. The wild boy scurried back, terrified, and dropped behind a bush. Horse laid her plates on the ground, crouching beside them. Then, much to my horror, she began calling softly to him, as if he were a puppy or kitten. I had visions of the wild boy tearing at Horse with his teeth, clawing at her with his sharp nails, and I prayed that she would move away. But she stayed where she was.
For a long time, the wild boy did not move. Then slowly, cautiously, he began to creep towards her. He stopped when he was less than four feet away, and the two of them stared at each other silently, two creatures studying each other in the dark, wild light of the forest. If I had been older, perhaps I would have been less afraid for her. If the light had been clearer, perhaps I would have seen that a conversation was taking place, that what was passing between them now was not mistrust or fear, but a code, a series of silent dots and dashes that spelled out all they knew about themselves, about the world. But I was not that old and not that brave. All I could see was the boy’s wildness; all I could picture was the bite in Mr. Taugwalder’s hand.
Finally, Horse backed away. The wild boy shuffled up to the plates, drew his sack from his pocket and scooped everything into it, then disappeared.
As soon as the boy was gone, I felt fear pour out of me in one giant exhalation, a ghost escaping from a too-small body. I began to jump and skip and ran crashing out of the woods, back towards the lodge, singing, “We saw the wild boy! We saw the wild boy!”
Horse ran after me, caught me by the arm. “Shut up!” she said, looking as if she might hit me. But then, just as suddenly, she let go, and when I turned my head, I saw Father storming down the steps of the patio towards us, Sophia following close behind.
“What the hell are you two doing?” he shouted. “Didn’t I tell you to be back at the hotel by ten? Didn’t I?”
“We saw the wild boy…in the woods,” I said. This was not what Father wanted to hear. He aimed his palm at the back of my head, but Sophia stopped him.
“Girard!” she said. She wrapped herself around his arm, rested her head on his shoulder. “Don’t. Everyone is having a good time. It is only a little after ten now. They can go back to the hotel, and nothing will be wrong, no? We will still have time together.”
Father glared at us, but finally relaxed. He did not want to ruin his evening either.
“I want the two of you in bed in twenty-minutes,” he said, letting go of us. “And I’ll be calling the room to check.”
We said goodnight and left, but the cable car was delayed, and we did not reach the room until an hour later. We lay awake all night, waiting for Father to come back and punish us. But he did not return until morning.
Saturday, our last day, the slopes were snow-bound. Everyone was tired, so we spent the morning just walking around Zermatt. Horse bought a sweater. I bought half a kilo of chocolate. Father got sweaters for Mother and Alex and a ski-hat with a bright green pompom on it for Stevie. Sophia bought two Zermatt patches and gave them to Horse and me.
After lunch, the sky had cleared, but it was now too cold and windy to ski. Horse was not feeling well, said she wanted to lie down, but Father insisted we all go to the Alpine Museum. So we bundled up and walked to the museum, a small stone chalet at the edge of the village, containing photos, drawings, some climbing gear. The centerpiece of the museum was a huge model of the Matterhorn, with tiny climbers scaling it and a plaque describing its disastrous first conquest. Next to it hung a reproduction of Gustave Doré’s famous engraving showing the four victims falling, the four survivors watching in horror, unable to save their friends. The model and picture together, side by side, made me dizzy, and I had to look away.
Horse, who was feeling worse, lay on a bench while we finished the tour. Afterwards, as we were about to start back to the hotel, she said she needed to go to the bathroom. But Father told her to wait until we got back to the hotel. She walked the entire way clutching her stomach, and when we finally arrived back at the hotel, she rushed into the bathroom and locked herself in.
A few seconds later, there was a loud shriek. Father knocked on the bathroom door, asked what was wrong. Horse did not answer, but we could hear her crying.
“Unlock the door!” Father shouted, pounding on it. Horse cried louder, but she would not let anyone in. Finally Father called the desk, had a bellboy bring up the key. When the bellboy arrived, Father snatched the key from him and unlocked the door. There, sitting on the toilet, crying, was Horse, blood on her tights, spots of blood on her legs. She shook her head back and forth, telling us to go away.
Sophia pushed Father aside. “Go,” she said, grabbing a towel. “This is not for you to see.” She wet the towel, wiped the blood from Horse’s legs. “It’s all right,” she said, hugging her, pushing the hair from her face. “It’s nothing. You will see.” Horse fell on her shoulder sobbing, and Sophia, seeing that we had not moved, kicked the bathroom door shut with her foot.
Father took me down to the lounge, ordered a scotch for himself and a hot chocolate for me. But I could not drink. My hands felt frozen, my stomach shrunken into dust. I was glad to be here, glad to be away from the turmoil, but at the same time I was terrified. I didn’t know what was happening. Was Horse sick? Would she be going to the hospital? I started to cry, long, hot beads like melted glass.
“Christ, not you, too,” Father groaned, setting down his tumbler. “What the hell’s the matter now?”
“I don’t want Horse to go,” I said, sobbing.
“Horse isn’t going anywhere,” Father said. He pulled my chair up to him, put his arm around me, and I leaned my head into his ribs. “She’s just going through a little change. She’ll be fine. Understand?”
I nodded—because I knew this was what he wanted, because I did not know what to ask, because I did not want to be crying—but I did not understand at all. And I felt, at that moment, that I would never understand anything, that without Horse beside me I would always be afraid, always be alone, a child staring into a gray swirling sky.
An hour and a half later, Horse and Sophia joined us in the restaurant. Horse was holding Sophia’s hand. She looked very pale, but she gave Father a kiss and acted as if nothing had happened. Sophia nodded reassuringly to Father.
“I ordered some oysters,” Father said to Sophia. “Horse loves—”
“É basta!” Sophia said. “You must stop calling her that, Girard. She is not a horse. She is a young woman. You do not call young women horses.”
I expected Father to be angry, to snap back at her. But he only looked blankly at her. “Sarah,” he said. “I meant Sarah.”
The next morning we left for Milan. Sophia saw us to the train, and while Horse and I were settling ourselves in the car, she and Father said their good-byes. We watched them kiss. I do not think Horse could quite decide whether to be angry or not. Sophia had been very kind, and Father seemed calmer with her than he had ever been with Mother. But I think she must also have felt that whatever changes her body had undergone were Sophia’s fault, that, had Mother been there, perhaps none of this would have happened, that she would still be “Horse,” still be safe. If so, it did not matter. When the train pulled out, we all waved to Sophia, and Horse was crying.
Mother and Alex and Stevie did not arrive home until a week later. Mother looked rested, and Alex and Stevie bragged about seeing our grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. But no one seemed happy to be home. Father quickly lost himself in his work again. Mother was well for a few days, then took to her bed. Sarah resumed feeding and dressing and scolding us. I thought about what Father had said about her going through some changes, but the only change I could see was now Sarah was angrier than ever. And we could not call her “Horse.” If we did, she would fly into a rage.
Soon after we returned, she sewed our Zermatt patches onto our winter coats, but we never mentioned Sophia, not to ourselves, not to anyone. We told Mother and Alex and Stevie about the wild boy. They did not believe us, but a few months later, there was an article in The Herald Tribune about some campers in Zermatt who had caught the wild boy rifling through their packs. He had stabbed one of them in the thigh and another in the shoulder with an old ski pole, then run off. The police had interviewed the campers, but offered no details, except that the wild boy was a girl, and now there was a bounty on her head.