She’s been here longer than anyone can remember: a ninety-foot woman carved into the limestone hills of our town. You can tell she’s a woman because of the breasts and the vagina, which is a series of circular ditches where high school students sneak off to drink beer. An archaeologist at the turn of this century determined that if she were a real woman, her bra size would be a 34-D. She has round eyes, a round mouth, no nose to speak of. What happened to it? Nobody Nose: this was the headline of a newspaper article from 1879, a newspaper preserved under glass in the Museum of the Hill Lady. In the article, a local saddlery shop owner speculates that her nose was deliberately omitted, the artist’s way of saying women should stay out of people’s business.
Travelers come from thousands of miles to see her, our Hill Lady, our Ditch Darling, who glows in the moonlight, whose open mouth inspires songs and albums (Flute Sounds of the Hill Lady) and amateur pornos; whose vagina is turned, every April, into a Festival of Tulips during the annual garden show.
They come from across the country and across the ocean: tourists and pilgrims, school groups and hitchhikers hefting backpacks, travelers who left their homes and families behind to sleep under the stars in the soft loam of the Hill Lady’s body. They leave offerings in the place her nose isn’t. Once a week, these offerings are collected and taken down the hill to the Museum of the Hill Lady. What isn’t garbage or wilting flowers or stinky cheese is added to the museum’s collection, which includes a 1798 copy of a famous poet’s least famous book (featuring “Ode to the Hill Lady”) and a 1970 album by a famous band, signed by all four members: Rock on, Lady Hill Mama.
But mostly there are wilting tulips and underpants and foreign cheeses—the smelliest kind: a charm for growing her nose back, or a way of saying good for you for not having one?
I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I’m the one who climbs the hill every Saturday morning and collects the offerings, scattering anyone who stepped past the barrier, the yellow fence, the keep out signs. I also pick up Doritos bags, empty beer cans, socks. Sometimes a bottle of cheap perfume: If only you could smell this, my dear. Sometimes diamond rings, which go in a separate locked case in the museum, along with the notes from their owners: I left my man behind to become my own person, my own hill!
I want to say: Don’t you know you could have sold that ring? It would be so much easier to be your own hill if you had money.
Penny, says my mother, go to college, get the hell out of this dipshit town. That’s how my mother talks. That’s how many of the people in this town talk. They call it a dipshit town and sometimes they leave but then they come back. When they come back, they get jobs at the post office or the elementary school or the TJ Maxx, and they get married and have children, and the children go to the elementary school and learn songs about the Hill Lady, and by the time they’re in high school they are sick of the pilgrims and the tourists and the idiotic postcards (Nobody Nose Where I Am Except the Hill Lady!), and they vow to leave, or vow that their children will leave, or that their children’s children will finally leave this dipshit town, though on moonlit nights they still climb the hill and drink and cry and their hearts feel like the burrows of small-teethed animals.
Sometimes when I’m on the hill with my trash picker, I look down at the valley, at the lights blinking on in the houses, and I make up stories about the people I know. There’s my tenth-grade social studies teacher, writing a love letter to a man in another country. He doesn’t speak English, so she looks up each word and conjugates each verb and takes photos of herself in a long red bathrobe. There’s the manager of the TJ Maxx, writing a song on his guitar, a song that has nothing to do with the Hill Lady, a song he will record a video for and become famous and soon we’ll see him on the late night shows. Or in that house with the gray roof, the boy I loved when I was seven is building a flying machine from a mail order kit, and when he finishes he will fly away from here, waving goodbye to the Hill Lady and to me.
There’s a new arrival at the Hill Lady Hotel. Good luck finding a room in April, during the Tulip Festival. But it’s February, when the town is damp and cold and gray, and the Hill Lady a ghost under the low clouds. He arrived alone, just past midnight, in a car with an out-of-state license plate. When the manager on the overnight shift pointed him toward the elevators, he said he preferred to take the stairs, and then he hauled his suitcase and his backpack up three flights to the Hill Lady Overlook Room, which he’d requested.
He’s here because he wants to find some answers, or that’s what we assume. Answers about himself, or about the Hill Lady, or both. Throughout the years, the decades, the centuries, many outsiders have come here looking for answers. Mystics and scholars and self-help authors, poets and archaeologists and surveyors, and experts in soils and bra sizes and facial reconstruction and sinus passages and gynecology. They write articles and start blogs and sometimes film documentaries that end with someone standing on the windswept hill saying, And perhaps we will never know her true origins.
The man has been seen eating lunch at the Hill Lady Café. I saw him there myself. My other job is waitressing at the Hill Lady Café, where I make paninis for tour groups who lumber off the buses in rain slickers and sun hats, carrying Hill Lady tote bags. But there were no tour groups that day. The man ordered a Lady Finger, which is cheese and mushrooms with a side of carrots. He ordered hot tea. He asked two questions:
1. Do you have any Sweet and Low? (We did not) and
2. Have you ever slept under the stars in the loamy body of the Hill Lady?
“Every Girl Scout sleepaway,” I said. I told him about toasting marshmallows in the Hill Lady’s eyebrows. I told him that if you grow up in this town, by the time you’re in high school you’re used to her, bored by her, sick of her. But when our hearts are broken or another college rejects us, we know she’s there for us, so we carry our beer up the hill and curse her and ourselves and drink ourselves stupid and leave something behind so she will know we love her even for the part of her that’s missing, or maybe because of what’s missing, because there’s a part of us that’s missing, too. I told him about the stinky cheese and the diamond rings.
When my father left my mother and me, I stalked up the hill in the rainy darkness and stacked rocks in the place her heart would be, but I didn’t tell him this.
He took notes in an off-brand moleskine.
“Thank you for your time,” he said finally, and asked for a refill of tea.
Here are some of the theories of the origins of the Hill Lady, as found in books, drawings, high school essays, blogs, and documentaries: She was created by an alien who visited the earth a thousand years ago and fell in love with a nose-less earth woman. When he was called back to his own planet, he carved her likeness into the hill so he would be able to find her again from the sky. Did he return for her? Possibly. Possibly the town is filled with his alien offspring, but that’s another documentary.
Or she was created by a human man who carved his love’s likeness into the hill, not sleeping or eating and eventually succumbing to tuberculosis before he could finish her face.
Or he didn’t die; she spurned him, and he climbed the hill in a fit of despair to destroy her image, but he only got as far as her nose before he was struck by lightning and killed.
Or she was created by a group of women in the sixteenth century who grew tired of their husbands’ demands and bonded together to make a creature who celebrated their beauty. When the husbands realized what was happening, they climbed the hill with torches but only got so far as destroying her nose before they were struck by lightning.
The point being: Whether human or alien, male or female, the creator or creators of the Hill Lady made her with fire in their hearts. They were artists. They were people like us who (even if they were aliens) felt the world had given them something or owed them something, and this was the way they made it known.
When under the moon your visage doth glow
We in our houses here below
Look upon your noseless face
And feel our own hearts fill with grace.
This is not from the major poet’s minor book, but from my own twelve-year-old self. You cannot find it in the Museum of the Hill Lady. You cannot find it anywhere, and that is what I love most about it.
The following week, an article appears in a newspaper most of us usually ignore.
“The hill woman,” the reporter wrote, “is not a woman at all. It’s not a man, or a dog, or any living creature. It’s not a non-living creature. It’s simply the way the hill was formed, completely naturally. In the way you can stare at the clouds until they make a recognizable shape, so have the people of this town invented a woman in the hill.”
There are dates and numbers and charts and quotes from archaeologists, anthropologists, and psychologists.
There are interviews with townspeople—my people. My former teachers and classmates, and the manager of the TJ Maxx and the front desk manager of the Hill Lady Hotel, and the “plain-faced waitress” who admitted to spending the night on Girl Scout trips in the Hill Lady’s body, whose “sad job” it is to “clean up the trash of the deluded.” He wrote: “I could just as easily imagine this girl’s face in the hills. Or the face of the dog that barked at me as I walked past the post office. Or my own face.”
What does it say about these people, he wrote, if they collectively imagined a missing nose on a nonexistent woman? What does that tell us about society? And then he quoted sociologists and psychologists and politicians who said it told us nothing good at all.
I find my mother crying at the kitchen table. This surprises me. We’ve never talked about the Hill Lady, in the same way you don’t talk about the things that are most private or most obvious. I want to tell her that maybe I’d never believed in the Hill Lady, not really, but this seems too horrible to say out loud. So instead I say, as gently as I can, “Why will you miss her?”
She lifts her head and stares at me, her eyes red. My mother. She has never left this town, even for a day. In all of my trash-pickups, why did I never make up a story about her? And now it seems too late.
“I will miss that beautiful noseless lady,” she says, wiping her nose with her sleeve, “because we could love her with all our hearts, and she’d never say: Oh, don’t love me. I’m really a piece of shit.”
I remember a letter my father wrote to her, that she still keeps in a drawer: I don’t deserve you, he wrote. I’m a piece of shit. And then he left and never came back.
“She’s not saying that now,” I point out. “She’s not saying anything.”
Which makes my mother cry harder.
There’s a rebuttal, published by the town librarian, and for a few months we split into two factions: those who believe in the Hill Lady and those who don’t. Some people believe in her even more; they say she rises up on moonless nights and dances across the hillside. They have seen her missing nose galloping through the countryside—like something out of that Russian short story they made us read in high school, claiming the author had been inspired by the Hill Lady.
But for many of us, now that we looked at the hill, really looked, we couldn’t believe we’d ever seen a woman in those tufts of earth, that we’d ever seen an absence of a nose in that grassy field. It was just a grassy field.
The owner of the Hill Lady Hotel is furious. How can there be a Hill Lady Hotel if there’s no hill lady? He changes the menu; he pays someone to do a new website for him and soon there are favorable TripAdvisor reviews for the Hill Hotel, featuring free Wifi and a breakfast buffet, and views overlooking a regular hill that is hardly worth remarking upon. My hours are cut back, but I still have a part time job at the Hill Museum, which is going to be razed and turned into a Sports Locker. The women who left their diamond rings on the hill have returned to ask for them back, and so I unlock the case and, like a bridegroom, put the rings on their fingers and watch them run across the street to the pawn shop.
The book of poetry, the famous band’s album: these will be sold on eBay, the money going to help the businesses that lost income with the loss of the Hill Lady. Hill Lady Tours, Hill Lady Gifts—the plastic nose pencil sharpeners growing dusty on the shelves.
(winner of the Editors’ Prize in Prose for issue 37)