People got out in strange ways. No stranger, I suppose, than the ways they got in. One year an American military helicopter flew too low over an Italian ski village, killing two families headed up the lift. A woman at Hillcrest had Italian citizenship and, like that, release became a reparation. Just like that it could happen. “The ski-lift option,” my mother called it. “Who knew?”
When a woman went free her friends and not-friends could watch from the north side of the mess hall to see her descent. But watching her was like watching that joke where a person stands behind a couch and pretends to walk down stairs that aren’t there by crouching lower and lower, then falling over. The women up top could watch the one woman descend and be gone, but she wasn’t gone, she was only on those parts of the hill that the women couldn’t see, the parts of the hill my grandfather and I walked up and down each weekend.
“A good hill,” my grandfather said to pause from climbing. Signal for us to stop, turn around, and look out. Far away someone sneezed and the sound landed right beside us. Women walking, talking to each other, men shouting to women, men shouting to one another—all this we could hear and not see. That great gatherings of women had been brought to live life on the hill I took as the natural order. That women defected from this order was part of the order and that we would never defect was also part of the order. “A good hill,” my grandfather said, gazing out. The nod he gave as we continued our ascent was the nod of agreeing to fate.
The Bureau of Prisons claimed to be in the business of custody, not punishment, but by all appearances they were in the business of construction. The year I turned eight was the year the prison built the hospital and the gun tower and raised the fences around the hill another three feet. It was the year the prison grew up. Also down: a cemetery. And to round things out, the nursery. In one year the hill became a place to be born or buried, a place you could stay all your life.
Any woman who grew too ill or lonely to get visits, anyone who went from being a person I saw in Visiting to a person I did not see anywhere, was something like dead to me. So it happened that the dead came back. A woman I thought deceased or released turned out only to have gone many months without a visit. Confronted with her return I might remark, “She’s here?” And my mother, who believed every woman deserved a name, would kneel beside me to say, “Gloria?” or “You mean Beez?” or “Who’s here?” Then, always, “Don’t point.” Everyone deserving their own name and deserving not to be pointed at, so that over the years I came to comment as little on these surprise returns as on the preceding disappearances.
What’s done is done and can never be undone, my grandmother found frequent occasion to say, but at the prison there were women I saw for years and years, and if one week they were not there, another woman was, in the same clothes in the same seat saying some version of the same thing when my mother walked me by to say the same hello. Week after week, year after year, women replaced each other, and this may be why departure as a fact of life did not bother me until my eighth year.
In addition to my mother there were twelve women set to stay hilltop forever. But that year new research, evidence that held up in court, showed you could shake a baby not meaning, not wanting, for death to come, and still it came. So murder became manslaughter and two nannies and one mother made their way down the hill. A famous actress began to visit the prison and by year’s end the woman she’d visited left to flashing cameras and acclaim. In these ways what forever meant appeared to change, and women I thought I’d spend forever with made swift and stunned descents.