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September 21, 2008 by · 4 comments

Robert Foshee

Photo: *Paddy*

It was an exceptionally lovely outhouse. Half the time Lettie spent there was just for the view. Sitting, you looked out a window on either side. The woods were full of birdsong and dappled ground, trees cut by streaks of sunlight so distinct they scratched the air. The tips of the tree branches budded plump leaf bulbs that pointed to Spring. Gazing at nothing in particular, patiently waiting like an old dog under the supper table, Lettie took everything in as she sat steady as a stone.

She noted where deer crossed the path in a wandering line through the underbrush. She knew a rabbit from a squirrel by the way the mountain laurel danced and shook. Even during storms, she’d warm the maple seat in the outhouse and move her head like an oscillating fan as branches swept back and forth, creaking beneath the flowing clouds. When the air was still, Lettie listened with closed eyes to tree frogs in call and response.

She laughed aloud when it occurred to her how much they sounded like a crowd of anxious sinners and their wives lamenting at the tent revivals she attended in the summers after she went to live with Uncle Cy. Today, she did not laugh, nor take note of the wind, the trees, birds or brutally cold bright sky. Her porcelain eyes were open wide, eyelashes glistening with snagged snowflakes and frost, and she sat perfectly still.

She always came to the outhouse down a winding path bordered by ferns. Their gentle arms stroked her legs as she walked. Lettie stepped without making a sound. Her moccasins melted into the giving earth. She had sewn them from rabbit fur she scraped and dried herself. Living alone as Thoreau had wasn’t a game or a romantic fantasy to Lettie; she meant with each step she took, with every action she performed, to do no harm. At 45, she had decided to make her life intentional. She was sick of wasting time.

What she wanted most was to bury her past so deep it would never resurface. Long ago on a semester abroad in Greece, Lettie had studied a tomb at Mycenae. It was a conical structure, dug sideways into the mountain. From the inside it looked like an inverted beehive. She had forgotten all about those times over the intervening decades of work, marriage and illness. Then, last summer, when everything seemed completely hopeless, she saw a poster in a head shop in Lexington that stopped her cold. It pictured a thousand year old rock house in the Pyrenees, constructed entirely of carefully balanced fieldstone. Below the photo was a slogan in curly-cue Haight Ashbury lettering:

Everybody Must Get Stoned

But it wasn’t just the ancient borrie that caught her eye — it was the gigantic jellyrolls of hay that dotted the landscape. Suddenly, Lettie remembered reading about the insulating power of straw in her tattered Whole Earth Catalogue, and put two ideas together: an upside down ice cream cone shaped structure made from rocks and hay bales. They would bring her the peace she sought. A natural house against the storm of her life. Her enthusiasm intensified as fall’s colors climbed the hills.

The yurt she built was warm inside. When she decided to move to her uncle’s property, Cyrus was skeptical but tolerant enough to let her live there, paying no rent, of course — which was the place’s main attraction to Lettie — but he declared that he wasn’t going to help his “college dread-u-cated” niece go to the Devil. “She’s gonna have to do that all by herself,” he snorted. A tall practical farmer, Cyrus had seen too much foolish in his lifetime to get excited about a city girl making a go of it in the woods.

So, Lettie borrowed Cy’s rusty F-150 and unloaded forty hay bales and a ton of creek rock by herself one autumn day. A circle of bales three feet thick topped the stone foundation. It required no mortar. Gravity alone kept it together. A hole in the ceiling allowed Lettie’s hearth smoke to escape. Lettie red lettered a sign and stuck it over the low arched opening: Hope.

For most of September, she worked at her easel outside the yurt, under a canopy of thin paisley fabric, which floated on the wind like a girl’s summer dress. It was attached by grommets to the front of the yurt and to two poles that leaned away toward the southeast. Lettie emerged each morning, tiptoed to the outhouse in the dimming starlight, and then sat under the canopy in a lotus position, repeating her mantra. She rolled her eyes up until only the whites could be seen, had anyone been there to look, and held that posture until the intrepid sun overwarmed her. Her soul was silent and serene.

The outhouse was Cyrus’ idea. He drove along the edge of the pasture and across the creek with his buddy Darnell one Sunday afternoon. Lettie heard them coming a long ways off. She felt the truck’s engine beating the air like a bird’s broken wing. The skin on the back of her right hand at the wrist itched suddenly and she stopped painting.

Streams of hot pink paint dripped off the canvas onto the ground. Agitated, Lettie ducked into the yurt, her eyes darting around the walls, then she ducked her head and came outside again just as quickly. She felt trapped, as it she were being swallowed. Back in the fresh air, she began a slow motion spin, counterclockwise with the earth’s rotation. Her chin rose and her eyes rolled back.

A hawk spying down would see two white liquid egg balls. Left palm up, right palm down she whirled. With her bare feet numb from the dance, she slowed again until she ceased to move. She lowered her face with her arms, then sat in the lotus position at peace. Ten minutes later, she stood erect, straightened her brushes and put a cloth down over the spilt paint just as the truck arrived.

The yurt impressed Cyrus. He ran his hands along the foundation’s shelf. “Good enough for FEMA or Frankfort,” he quipped. Darnell spat in approval.

When Lettie laughed, the sound seemed odd in her own ears. More like an echo or the voice of another woman. She realized she hadn’t laughed out loud in a long time. She smiled at her Uncle. All three of them stood inside her little house, but she didn’t feel crowded. Through the small hole at the apex of the ceiling a cylinder of sunlight found her face.

Cy had been thinking about his niece, sincerely praying for her, worried because he felt guilty for not really taking better care of her, leaving her to do all this hard work herself. He fidgeted and struggled to find something to say. Darnell couldn’t get over the artwork. He offered Lettie $15 for the pink one, pulling a wrinkled five and ten from his coveralls. He said was dying to give it to his wife for her birthday. Lettie thanked him for the offer but said it wasn’t really for sale, wasn’t even finished yet. She didn’t tell him the painting’s secret, that pink was for cancer.

On his way home Cyrus drove a mile or so, then stopped the old Ford down by the creek. He left the engine running like he always did. Back when he taught Lettie to drive, she’d asked him why, if he wasn’t wasting gas. He told her he didn’t want the engine to cool down just after getting hot. “Might cost more now but it’s cheaper in the longrun,” he had preached.

“That situation she’s in ain’t good,” he told Darnell. Cyrus got out to take a leak. As he pissed, it occurred to him he hadn’t seen any latrine at Lettie’s. So, with a resolve equal in authority to his zipping up, he decided he would come back and take care of the outhouse business for Lettie. Build her a grand one. It would be his special housewarming gift, he told himself. Darnell didn’t need to know that; he and his wife had indoor plumbing.

Both he and Darnell came back the next Sunday with a truckload of lumber, an auger, sacks of lime, and the hollowed out guts of an honest to goodness commode with a hardwood seat. With his wood burner, Cyrus branded HOPE onto the top piece. He and Darnell sat cross legged on a blanket and Lettie served hot tea in little wooden cups. They chatted and laughed until the cicadas rang in their ears like ten thousand finger bells.

The first frost in late November found Lettie holed up inside chanting in the flickering light of the small open fire she lay. The yurt’s inner walls were now lined with the recent abstract works she had created. Lettie painted everything that was broken in her life, and boiled it all down to colors. Rough orange blocks recalled her marriage to Alex Palt, who, on their tenth wedding anniversary, took Lettie to the nicest restaurant she’d ever been in and quietly, calmly, over coffee and chocolate mousse, announced that he wanted a divorce. “I didn’t know where my love for us has gone,” he said. “I’ve lost it somewhere along the way.”

Across another canvas, she pulled two long blue streaks until the paint grew so thin it was nearly transparent. These stood for her children, neither ever named, one aborted and the other stillborn. Lettie’s pastor told her and the other mourners at the grave site that the Lord had taken the second child as punishment for her choice to reject the first. At that very moment, when she needed comfort most, Lettie gave up on God and man.

Of course, when her cancer was diagnosed six weeks after the divorce was final, there was no avenue to understanding at all. Chemo did its work, but it made Lettie feel like a cheater. She wondered if she was only temporarily escaping what destiny had arranged. For the first time in years, she smoked marijuana to combat nausea. The buzz that made her forget, or at least not care as much. And some things seemed to become more clear to her, like the real source of power over death and life — not God, or humanity, but Nature.

Nature was completely non-judgmental, and therefore intrensically more forgiving, she figured. After all, animals lived and died without complaint or resistance, just like the squirrel she had found on the ground the first week at Cy’s. It probably had fallen from a high branch during a storm. Lettie lifted its small wiry body reverently, carried it back to the yurt and made a brush from its tail.

She let her personal regrets and sorrows bleed onto canvas with the squirrel’s gift, bringing new color and vibrancy to the landscape of her identity. Like wildflowers fighting up through a patch of weeds, her happiness reemerged. For the first time since the divorce and the pastor’s indictment, Lettie didn’t feel like a lost cause.

The dwelling absorbed a great deal of rain over December and began to lean a little as the ground sank unevenly around the foundation. The smoke hole became a slumping oval. At night, Lettie lay on her back, fully clothed, and watched the stars move overhead. She could only pick out a few points of light at a time, but the opening seemed to magnify whatever raced by. It was her magnifying glass on the universe.

Most nights she watched the stars’ progress until they faded into the faint stir of dawn. Once the moon filled her entire field of view and Lettie shut her eyes tight. The man-in-the-moon’s jovial after-image kept her awake hours after it had rolled on toward dawn. All she could see for hours was a cold black circle on the white canvas of night. Winter gave no explanation, but the wind blew over the hole and the yurt moaned like an empty pop bottle.

By mid-January, it was too cold to paint outdoors. Several tubes of cyan were stiff and slick as icicles. Lettie brought them inside but wasn’t sure if they would thaw out, and even if they did, she doubted they would ever be usable again. Lettie slept through the day. She hated to paint inside. She needed the world around her. The woods watched, but never criticized. They only suggested. The wind blew ceaselessly. Inside, Lettie shivered under a blanket. She feared she had been eaten alive. The ground was frozen, hard and unforgiving.

Worse, her woodpile was soaked and useless. At midnight, she put the last dry stick on the fire and curled into a ball. She wished she had a joint. Her tongue felt thick. Heaven wheeled past the expanding hole in the rotting roof. Lettie’s eyes were closed, so she didn’t see the shooting star flash by like a laser.

Cyrus did, though. Four miles away as the crow flies, he stood on his back porch, looked around furtively out of habit, and began peeing over the railing. Even though his wife had been dead ten years, he still tried to be discrete. He had indoor facilities, of course, but enjoyed watering his yard, even on the coldest night of the year.

It brought back good memories. Sixty years of pissing off that porch made him feel at home. He watched the moon. A ring bent around it like a halo. More snow for sure, he realized. That made him think of Lettie and wonder if she was prepared. He told himself she would be alright, but, as he returned to bed, he promised himself he would go up to check on her in the morning.

The path to Lettie’s outhouse snaked westward out of the clearing. The frigid earth sparkled like diamond dust. Ice pellets tapped her on the face insistently and then gave way to spiraling snowflakes. It blew sideways in petulant waves, plastering the curved sides of the yurt, obscuring its imperfections. It became an igloo, glistening white and pure. Inside, Lettie sat up suddenly.

She looked up and blinked. Snow and swirling wind had quenched the fire. She put her fingers to her forehead and rubbed the frost out of her brows. She pulled her knees up to her chest and stared at the silent black walls. Like ghosts, her paintings peered back. Her husband, her children, her art. All frozen and dead as dead could be.

She felt an urge. She rose and tiptoed to the entry. The flap was stiff. She detached it at the top and leaned it up against the inner wall like a board. Her stiff fingers looked like ten grape Popsicle sticks, but she felt nothing. Silently she moved down the snowy path toward the outhouse. The woods parted like a white lane for Lettie, who walked erect, defiant and oblivious to the bitter cold. It was still snowing, and ten inches already lapped the yurt and blanketed the ground.

Lettie pulled against the slatted door of the outhouse, but it wouldn’t budge. She turned in a slow circle, raised her arms, left palm up, right palm down. Her feet shifted the snow away from the base of the door, allowing it to swing free in the whipping wind. Lettie smiled but did not laugh. She stepped inside and pulled the door closed behind her.

She did not lift the toilet seat but sat down with the divine right of a Queen. The wind blew through the window openings on her left and right. She looked for rabbit tracks. She imagined deer snuggled down in the whitening woods. She waited, watching, her eyes wide and mouth grinning with anticipation.

Cyrus’s truck wouldn’t start, of course. When he wore the battery down until it barely ticked, he called Darnell and asked him to come pick him up. Even in his friend’s four-wheel drive vehicle, it took them nearly an hour to make it up to Lettie’s place. Along the way, they joked about how independent she was, how she probably would meet them with hot tea.

“If she needed any help, she’d come asking,” Cyrus repeated four or five times. Finally Darnell looked at him funny, not saying a word, but with concern in his face. Cy shut up the rest of the way. Inside, he felt about as anxious as a sinner at St. Peter’s gate.

When the Jeep approached the clearing, the yurt was nearly indistinguishable on the glaring white landscape. Its curves formed a subtle lump under the snow. Cyrus hopped out of the cab and called Lettie’s name. His cry echoed from the woods, from hardwoods tall and defiant and pine boughs wearing heavy coats of snow. He and Darnell took shovels and began to dig out the yurt’s entry way. They clapped their gloved hands to stay warm. Finally they cleared a tunnel and crawled inside the buried yurt on hands and knees. It was still as a tomb.

Outside again they pounded their boots on the ground to keep the circulation going to their feet. Darnell’s face was raw. He looked at Cyrus and muttered, “Now what? She’s not here, and I’m freezing to death.”

Cyrus just nodded. He looked at his friend, and then past him to the pathway into the woods. He took a deep breath. The cold air scratched his throat. Then he formed a “O” with his lips and exhaled slowly. He watched the warm current of air turn into a smoke-ring and evaporate like a lifting fog.

“You wait in the Jeep,” he told Darnell. “I’ll be right back.”

Darnell slapped his leathered hands together. The sound was muffled. No echo returned. He opened the door, slid into the slick eat and waited. He removed one glove and blew his own smoky breath into his fist. He thought about the pink painting, how striking it would look against the snow. Maybe it even would be hot enough to melt winter away for good. Maybe Lettie would finally sell it to him once she turned up. His anniversary was coming up. It might cost him more than the $15 he had first offered her, but it would be worth it. His wife loved pink things.

Cyrus saw no footprints but his own as he trudged toward the outhouse. His eyes searched the snowy ground in a sweeping motion. He tried the door latch, but it was coated in ice. He turned away and considered unzipping and peeing on the ground. Then he reconsidered… the likely discomfort and the potential embarrassment to Lettie, so he decided to try the outhouse latch again.

The foot of snow that had collected in a graceful drift at the base of the door suddenly gave in to Cy’s strength. It relented and he slowly pushed an arc of snow away, leaving the door wide open.

He found her that way, just looking out the window to the east.

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