Nancy Bell pulled her dress up over her head and stood naked as the water droplets from the ferns dripped onto her face and arms. “They are my jewels”, she said to Henry Halter, “and one day you can buy me real ones.”
It was cool and dark in the woods behind his house. Henry’s father had said that he would cull the deep grove before it got too overgrown but he never got around to it, so the ferns had grown taller than him, and only rabbits could find their way through the bramble bushes. Once when he was little he got lost in the woods and thought he would never find his way out. There were bears and wolves in the woods, and he might wander for days without finding his way home. For years he never set foot in the woods until Nancy Bell had asked him. He knew that the wild animals were not real, but he still hesitated at the mountain laurel bushes at the back of their yard, and never took the narrow path into the woods. That was how childhood worked, he later thought, full of crazy imaginary things that scared you, and one day you woke up and they weren’t there any more, and the woods was just a dark, wet place where you would prefer not to go.
Nancy Bell sat next to him in school the next day, so close together in the auditorium that their legs touched. She smelled fresh and clean, like talcum powder and lilac soap, and she was wearing the same dress that she had worn in the woods. He noticed a bit of dried oak leaf on her dress that she had not seen and remembered how she had put her clothes neatly in a pile on a mossy patch under his father’s favorite tree.
Henry’s mother never let him out of the house unless he had a complete change of clothes. “What will the neighbors think?”, she said, afraid that they would piece together the bits of hard times that make up poverty; but the Bells had money, and although they could have bought Nancy a hundred dresses, they showed their snobbery by sending her out looking like a pauper. “We don’t have to prove anything to anybody”, Henry’s mother said, imitating the horny wheeze of Mrs. Bell, an old crone who had tea and crumpets for her circle of friends every Friday afternoon. She watched the big Packards and Buicks drive up to the Bell’s house and park under the elms. Hoity-toity Mrs. Blanchard always dressed to the nines even though it was only for tea in New Brighton, a town that nobody thought twice about any more, but she made out to be the best thing next to Boston or New York.
Henry didn’t care about Mrs. Bell or their house or Mrs. Blanchard’s Buick. He could only think of Nancy Bell standing naked in front of him wet with droplets of rain from the ferns which were now three feet high and still growing. “It’s the rain”, said his father, annoyed at the mildew on the verandah chairs, the smell of rotting leaves in the window wells and the musty air in the basement. “It better stop soon or we’ll all rot before our time.”
Nancy with a necklace of rain jewels. Nancy standing naked in front of him standing as tall as she did at the Pledge of Allegiance. She always recited the Pledge louder than any of the other children, and the could hear her voice above all others when the class sang America the Beautiful.
In June before the mosquitoes started biting, they sat naked in the woods and told stories to each other. Nancy made up the rules and said that no story could be about their parents or brothers and sisters. “Make them up”, she said. “Make everything up”, and so each afternoon before the mosquitoes hatched from the wet oak leaves and puddles where the rain sluiced down the tallest trees and collected beneath them, they invented places where there were no people but people-animals “Your house has disappeared”, Nancy said, “and so has mine. All we can see is the trees and the squirrels. I have made everything outside the woods disappear.”
Henry compared every woman he met with Nancy Bell; and they never measured up. They were either too matter-of-fact or too determined; too focused or too deliberate and precise. None had Nancy’s ability to change things to suit her or to make things go away. Henry was never fully aware that she was doing this to him, making his choices for him; and when he once considered it, he laughed. They were only children, after all, and one summer with Nancy Bell was nothing. So what was it, then?
Years ago people had children because of social and economic reasons. Henry VIII was so desperate for a son to continue the royal line that he married eight times, was indifferent to his wives and daughters, and chopped off the heads of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. Peasants cared little for hereditary title, but relied on the labor of sons and daughters to survive.
Today it costs far more to raise and educate a child than the child returns either in economic benefit or social status. Yet couples still have them. The human race would do quite well without so many new members, so evolutionary determinism cannot be at work. Women are supposed to follow a biological imperative which they cannot ignore, but this comes and goes every month, reaches a point of crisis, and then diminishes and dies out. Men’s biological urges guarantee only tomcatting, and most men run the other way when pregnancy is mentioned. There is no real reason, then, for men and women to procreate.
“Innocence”, said Henry. “That can be the only reason”; and from that moment on he understood why Nancy Bell had meant so much to him. He had known and understood innocence when he was a child.
The writer Paul Theroux once wrote that when he was a young man living in West Africa, he knew that he would remember it as the best time of his life. Most people simply live and reflect later on the many experiences of their lives and select those that have been the most memorable. Their understanding of value comes only ex post facto. Theroux on the other hand had a special insight into himself, the particular and unique configuration of life around him, and an appreciation of the deep psychological resonance of the union of the two.
Henry had the same experience in the woods with Nancy Bell. Instinctively he knew then that his childhood friendship with her was special, irreplaceable, and unforgettable. How could he not then compare her with every other woman he met? He had known Nancy in an impossibly unique time and place.
The tragedy of Henry Halter was that because of Nancy Bell he never married and never had children. She was too much too bear, and he could never rid himself of her. In other words he could never compromise innocence, even though he might experience it again with children of his own.
Who can say, however, that Henry’s story was in fact a tragedy?
A priest suggested to me that Henry had seen the face of God. A psychiatrist said that he had suffered from arrested development. A child psychologist explained the events of Henry’s childhood in terms of Maslow and Piaget and predictable phases of personality development.
I bought none of it. Henry was simply more attuned to himself and to the nature of being, than anyone I had ever met. Tolstoy spent agonizing decades searching for meaning in what he saw as a meaningless life. Tired, worn out, and dispirited by his inability to reason the answer, he backed into faith. Born-again Christians report spiritual epiphanies where they have indeed been welcomed by Jesus Christ. Henry Halter was spared all that painful exegesis, struggle, and religious fol-de-rol. He was a lucky man. He found innocence as an innocent child.