Will Levington Comfort and Zamin Ki Dost
The Good Grey Nerve
His name was Sanford Hantee, but you will hear that only occasionally, for the boys of the back streets called him Skag, which "got" him somewhere at once. That was in Chicago. He was eleven years old, when he wandered quite alone to Lincoln Park Zoo, and the madness took him.
A silent madness. It flooded over him like a river. If any one had noticed, it would have appeared that Skag's eyes changed. Always he quite contained himself, but his lips stirred to speech even less after that. He didn't pretend to go to school the next day; in fact, the spell wasn't broken until nearly a week afterward, when the keeper of the Monkey House pointed Skag out to a policeman, saying the boy had been on the grounds the full seven open hours for four straight days that he knew of.
Skag wasn't a liar. He had never "skipped" school before, but the Zoo had him utterly. He was powerless against himself. Some bigger force, represented by a truant officer, was necessary to keep him away from those cages. His father got down to business and gave him a beating—much against that good man's heart. (Skag's father was a Northern European who kept a fruit-store down on Waspen street—a mildly-flavoured man and rotund. His mother was a Mediterranean woman, who loved and clung.)
But Skag went back to the Zoo. For three days more he went, remained from opening to closing time. He seemed to fall into deep absorptions—before tigers and monkeys especially. He didn't hear what went on around him. He did not appear to miss his lunch. You had to touch his shoulder to get his attention. The truant officer did this. It all led dismally to the Reform School from which Skag ran away.
He was gone three weeks and wouldn't have come back then, except his heart hurt about his mother. He felt the truth—that she was slowly dying without him. After that for awhile he kept away from the animals, because his mother loved and clung and cried, when he grew silently cold with revolt against a life not at all for him, or hot with hatred against the Reform School. Those were ragged months in which a less rubbery spirit might have been maimed, but the mother died before that actually happened. Skag was free—free the same night.
The father's real relation to him had ended with the beating. It was too bad, for there might have been a decent memory to build on. The fruit-dealer, however, had been badly frightened by the truant-officer (in the uniform of a patrolman), and he was just civilised enough to be a little ashamed that his boy could so far forget the world and all refined and mild-flavoured things, as to stare through bars at animals for seven hours a day. In the process of that beating, hell had opened for Skag. It was associated with the raw smell of blood and a thin red steam, a little hotter than blood-heat. It always came when he remembered his father. . . . But his mother meant lilacs. The top drawer of her dresser had been faintly magic of her. The smell came when he remembered her. It was like the first rains in the Lake Country.
But that was all put back. Skag was out in the world now, making it exactly to suit himself. He was in charge of himself in many ways. A glass of water and a sandwich would do for a long time, if necessary. . . . The West pulled him. Awhile in the mountains, he lived with a prospector; there was a period in the desert when he came to know lizards; then there were years of the circus, when he was out with the Cloud Brothers, animal men of the commercial type. Ten queer, hard years for the boy—as hard almost as for the animals.