I guess the main reason why folks were so surprised about what happened to the Pierce girl was because of Pill Hill. Back then, it seemed what set it apart from the rest of Tower was more than just a slight elevation. The rumors that found their way down to us carried an aura of mysticism. They were glinting anecdotes from households whose full privilege and power we could only guess at.
The hill was a set of mansioned cul-de-sacs south of town that acted as a residential campus for employees of the hospital. The anesthesiologist Dr. Pierce owned a home there that was tall and slim as a silo, with an interior encircled by a staircase. This was an architectural detail we retained in the back of our minds due to the mnemonic of Regina Pierce’s seventeen-year-old pregnant body as it ricocheted from her father after he struck her, we heard , on the top step. The estate occupied an acre of Pill Hill’s eastern edge on the cliffs above the old ore quarry bottoms where each week the summer I was 16 I flew the hawk I found there, training it to hunt field mice. We all knew the bottoms well, and it seemed to us to fit how in the quarry lived certain beasts— industry, nature, the elements— which were meant to haunt our mythologies and never those of Pill Hill. After Regina was found, beyond resuscitation, beneath them, the quarry bottoms and the hill— and the stories and order they promised us—became untethered to the maps we had made with them. That year we found that some among those we considered superhuman could die, and that some among us were much more than mortal.
I told her, I said, you’re just about looking for some place higher than the Hill, Gregory said to me one day before all that. I threw my falcon from my fist like a spiral. It could have been true. We sat on a felled tree in the clearing at the quarry bottoms and watched as the bird flew over the wide open space, towards the interstate, the take home gazebos-for-sale and homestead churches scattered beside it, the side-by-side homes, both with screen porches, where Gregory and I had been raised. I thought about how it would be to stay. Drive down the interstate, slim-slow-slide my hands over the cornfields, mulch, and mealworms, look through the tempered car windows that turn the plains pink.
I inherited the shop, Gregory said, we lived way out past the tops or bottoms, we could look at the sky and I’d take a part of it. You know? Man of the house. She never needed to work a day in her sweet life, any-who.
I produced the tiny thawed body of a field mouse from paper and held it out in my gloved hand. I whistled once and the falcon rustled heavily from an obscured branch, circling down towards me.
Not one day, Gregory said.
Regina Pierce’s was the second funeral of all I would go to in Tower. Tower funerals are all I’ve ever been to, really. Once, it was the place where we all pushed out of the dirt like birch trees, and now, I guess, the life cycle is coming back around.
Sometimes, in order not to despair at the good years of living she missed, I imagine her having aged backwards. When I met her when we both entered Tower Township High School in 9th grade, her body was already—and, I assumed, had been for many years—precisely what I understood to be a body of a woman. All other women I met after Regina were her imperfect duplications. That summer—the summer I was sixteen—we sometimes set a blanket on the rubber tracks beside Township and read books parallel to one another, never touching, taking the sun. Regina’s hair was so sun-bleached it looked like her father’s, slicked and white. I was deeply interested in the pages she passed her grey eyes over.
It’s like it’s gone inside him and taken him over, Regina said on one of those days. The idea, I mean.
What about the shop? I said.
Nothing’s changed here in fifty years and it won’t in another. If Gregory comes with me, even after four years it’ll still be true that the bottoms are empty, the Hill is tall, doctors are liars and men are swine. Save for, I’ll have a degree and he’ll have a little exposure.
It was moments like this—when some things were revealed as self-evidently valuable—that clearly delineated the differences between Regina and me. Exposure was a word I had learned from my mother, to teach me to zip up my parka or to feel guilt for what my father let me watch with him on the television. For Regina, it was built into her knowledge that a different and better life than the one in Tower existed, and that if she desired, it belonged to her. She belonged anywhere, and I did not, because all Hills are alike, and each Bottoms is a Bottoms in its own way.
For that fact alone I wonder, now, if Gregory would have made it out. In any event, it was around that time when things with him started to turn bad.
At first it was nothing to write home about. Typical eighteen-year-old guy type of stuff: gave Ed Gill a rough time for calling Regina a slummer, ate a whole roasted game hen with his hands like a corncob at my mom’s Independence Day tailgate. Then, just after solstice, he pulled his bedding sheet by sheet into the garage and spent his nights there like a tapeworm among innards. It seemed to coincide with the busting of his room’s AC unit and could thus conveniently be explained with Gregory’s desire to escape the hunkering air of Tower nights in the summer. But by July, that Gregory was undergoing metamorphosis was undeniable.
The night of the tailgate, after Gregory, intoxicated, stumbled home on his hands like a mammal, Regina and I sat on the cliffs. We sipped a pair of Grain Belts, and watched the pyrotechnics.
You ever wonder what it was like before? Her voice like something landed after flight.
No. Not worth wondering about, I guess.
Bet it was nice. Real mossy, Jack pines tall as the tower.
No cars to tailgate.
No, but listen. She put her face in front of mine. Sexual equality. Ever hear of that?
Women and men, just the same, living off God’s good earth. Be whoever you like, no matter your family, just so long as you worked hard.
Just so long you knew how to swim.
She laughed. That too.
In Tower, the stories always went, and the stories of the quarry bottoms went like this: Once, before the hospital, before the Hill and before any of this, the quarries were filled with water. The bottoms were a lagoon formed by the hoof of Bunyan’s blue ox, and it was this body of water, not the ore-rich earth, that drew the first settlers of Tower. The lagoon sustained the settlers without scarcity or hierarchy until one settler, ploughing his field, found a lump of iron, red as an apple. The settler, a greedy and small-hearted man, knew this way lay another kind of sustenance. He kept his find a secret but began to suggest to the settlement why they might begin to do away with the lagoon. Relying on it was uncertain, old-fashioned, he said, and above all, dangerous.
Around this time, a young girl who had been born on the settlement—a girl who, in my imagination, is always Regina’s spitting image—washed up on the banks of the lagoon, and though all suspected the greedy settler to be at fault, none could prove it. The settlement agreed the lagoon to be a greater danger than a resource, and the lagoon was drained into the water tower that still stands at the center of town. And you know how it goes from there: the settler, having discovered the mineral, laid claim to it, and to the town itself as it developed around a set of violent exhumations of the earth. Iron slid Tower steadily through easy and hard times, and when the mine dried up, the settler’s descendants, who knew that the only people thirstier than the living were the sick and dying, established the hospital. Some are still on the Hill.
My dad says that if I leave with Gregory, I’m not to be welcomed back, Regina said after a long time of quiet.
You don’t know how he is. A woman living in sin, all that.
Lights from the fireworks turned her mouth orange as if to punctuate. There’s a part of me that feels like it will steam ahead, right out of me if I don’t leave now, she said.
You’ll steam ahead either way, Reg. You’re like a pneumatic tire.
We watched for a minute. Then Regina put her head on my neck. It was a feathered thing. The line where the sky ended and the bottoms began was dark as a lake that the lights, in winks, barely burned through, as if doused.
The next morning I walked to Gregory’s, a pigeon in tow. My hawk, at this stage, was to hunt bigger game, so I’d bought a pair of non-pedigree birds at Fleet Farm earlier in the week. Gregory was the only person I knew who had ever wrung a neck.
His house was white and flat as a dish, with a screen porch where Gregory’s dad smoked in the summer and stored six packs in the winter. The garage was separate, and historically too full of fishing tackle and amorphous, dusty power tools for the truck. I hit on the segmented door and then waited for a moment before I saw the handle on the bottom and pulled. Light set over the interior like thick wax paper. Something like the body of a teenage boy registered near the far wall, half alit.
Got something for you, buddy, I said.
The body shifted. The skin of it was slick and orange, as if fevered. A hand that seemed disproportionately immense, perhaps due to the angle of the arm in relation to me, moved to cover the face as it came into the sun.
What are you doing out here, Junior, it said. For Pete’s.
I’m here for bait, I said. Need to kill a pigeon.
The body that was Gregory’s was still, then scuttled forward. The form of it— now fully clear—was broad of shoulder and heavy of skull. He wore a pair of shorts to which a pattern of hair led, unlike I had ever seen on Gregory. But it was his eyes, black and sunk deep into his face like two souls into damnation, that sprung moisture to my skin.
You look like hell, Greg. You feeling alright?
The larynx started up like a flooded engine.
Aw, it’s nothing. A few too many last night is all. He paused.
What you got for me in there?
Just a bay dove.
Your falcon? Sometime you’re goin’ a learn to slaughter a thing yourself. Maybe sooner than your bird will. Come a day when you’ll understand what it really takes to be a man out here. The sacrifices. The hard truth. No God out here, Junior, no good or evil, heaven or hell. Just the earth. Just men, women, our animal instincts.
He reached for the bag and extracted the pigeon, his measured, immense hand cupped around its head all the while. Then he brought the bird to his teeth and gripped it there like some fishing line to tie. Without biting down, never drawing blood, he shook his great head like a pestle. After four sharp such movements, the pigeon dangled, and Gregory took the thing from his mouth and it was back in the bag, in my hand like nothing had died at all.
Best get out. Middle of the night.
Gregory was steady as a millennia. I stepped back from the threshold and watched him pull the garage close.
Anyway, after that I sensed that the way I had always traced the lines of my life, and those of Gregory and Regina Pierce, was altered beyond recourse.
A night that comes back slow as lead: Regina’s face, swollen as Canada blueberries or the full moon that hung above her. Junior, are you good for a ride somewhere? she said soon as I opened the door.
Jesus, Reg, what happened to you?
I had a disagreement with my father. Said if I didn’t marry Gregory before I left, he’d make sure I didn’t leave at all.
I called him a corrupt old aristocrat and a drunk and I hoped he died so I could stop pitying him.
What did you say that for?
True as loons are blue. I can’t walk a mile like this, Junior. Say you’ll drive.
I drove to Gregory’s, looking all the while in the rearview. Regina lay across the backseat, feet crossed out the window, holding a dishtowel full of ice on her right eye. Then, clear as a hatchet, a feeling about her. Water funneled up into the Tower. Hill cliffs, after summer erosion. Bodies wheeled from ambulance to ICU. Things unfolding in the way they do. Pre-ordained stories into which I could never hope to intervene. My wheels, yet it was Regina’s fate we were all tossed along.
Gregory pulled the garage door up towards heaven. His face—swollen and still feverish—fixed to Regina’s. It swung to mine like pulleyed machinery.
You ain’t happen to have anything to do with this, Junior.
Hold on, buddy, I said.
There ain’t happen to be a reason she’s riding in your car.
Come on, Gregory.
Honey, you’ve got it all mixed up, Regina said.
What happened then I can neither explain nor reason, not then or now. I can only describe to you how Regina’s voice seemed to pull something from Gregory’s stomach—not the depths where food is digested but the depths where the chemicals reside that make us who we are, the ones that make us human. From there a great expansion grew, pushing shapes in pulses out of Gregory’s back and neck like growths. Whatever state Gregory was in was either getting worse, or moving towards its natural conclusion. I took Regina’s arm, rough as I ever touched her. She looked at me.
Get out of here, Junior, she said. And don’t call until tomorrow night. He won’t be right ‘til then.
Had I been another, a citizen of Tower or not, maybe I would have stuck with Regina that night. Perhaps you yourself, hearing this, sensing a change, would have stuck. But there was something taking place in Tower, in Gregory, in Regina— to which I did not then feel entitled understanding. I returned to my car and drove home in the dark, unable to shake from my mind the sight of Gregory’s transforming body, both his and belonging to another thing entirely. The way his malformation threw in sharp relief the normalcy, the smallness of mine, its deep lack of metamorphosis or warning of coming dangers.
Next day at dusk I flew the falcon at the cliffs. He hung above the bottoms as if afloat the long disappeared lake. The grey reeds were spots where the earth was worn. How many cycles of erosion had taken place here, I thought, the settlements and industry, shifting through time, marking it. What was lost and what would stay. The damage inflicted on the ground beneath Tower, just to see how far it could go before it becomes uninhabitable, or opens up and swallows us whole.
I wondered about Regina, whether it would be Gregory or her father who would wear her out first, though she was more capable than anyone I knew of opening her mouth, eating us alive.
Suddenly, before I could produce the dove with its neck split in two, the falcon fell below the cliffs. It seemed to move towards a shape below, something near hidden among the folds at the foot of the cliffs. The thing was curved, discontinuous with the natural forms and hues of the bottoms.
Caring for a falcon is like this: First, you find the falcon. Maybe stolen. Maybe, like this one, forgotten at the base of an oak by its mother bird. Then, slowly, with patience and tenderness, you train it to kill. After that, the only thing left is to let it free, drop from this set of cliffs and find another.
That was the summer I came to know about impending release, what you might have to learn in order to leave. From what things, and whom, you must untether yourself, and leave behind. What lightness you must evolve into, in order to float and not to sink. What is necessary to survive. What evils you must allow yourself to commit.
The stories that, as I watched, played out that summer ‘til their conclusions, I know in retrospect, are both what pushed me, in the end, to leave Tower, and what I also can’t shake from me.
Without retrieving my falcon, I pushed my bike down the other side of the tops, down towards Gregory’s, needing him, like a map to the order of things, to confirm what I dreaded to know: What lay below the cliffs was a body.
When I reached it, the house was dark and locked, so I went around the side to the garage door, and wrenched it open a yard or so. In the dark there was a spot darker still. The steady movement of breath. What I thought of first was the falcon, the fatty body of a predator. But the animal in Gregory’s garage, the one that used to be Gregory, was of a different order.
As I biked away I thought of the different kinds of truth. The things you know before you do and deeper than you should. If nothing else from that time, one thing I remember clear as a light: I knew far before I got to the top that Regina was gone.