Fifteen Ways of Looking at a Privy
I. Sitting my bare skin down on the damp-morning timber is about as magical as it gets. This one is nothing more than a wooden seat over a hole in the ground in the middle of deep deciduous trees, far enough away from where our tent is set up. It’s our fourth morning on the Appalachian Trail, Cal and I, and the May foliage gleams, rays beaming through the trees and illuminating me, alone, pants pushed down my legs. I am queen of the Connecticut woods, quiet and human on her throne.
II. Queen, but not God. That title belongs to Tsi-Ku, the Chinese goddess of the outhouse, “the Purple Lady,” a delicate figure with long, dark hair who would reveal the future to the women who came to visit her when they needed to relieve themselves.
III. As a child, I’d always known them as outhouses, paint-chipped stink boxes next to the soggy shower room at the state park where Mom first taught me to love the woods. They were often crowded, and even though finding myself alone in the trees scared me, there was no thought more frightening than having to make small talk on the toilet. I avoided them, preferred squatting behind a bush and wiping up with leaves, but only if I knew Mom was within earshot. Had I known about Tsi-Ku, the goddess waiting in silk robes to tell me who I’d be when I grew up, I might’ve braved the crowd, saved time sneaking away to find a secret spot in the woods.
IV. My intestines have somehow regulated themselves. I wake every morning and leave Cal to start packing up the tent, saunter off to solitude. Privies are clearly marked on the AT guide, one at nearly every campsite. The symbol: a small crescent moon.
V. Luna, the ancient crescent-shaped figure, was originally carved into doors of “ladies’ rooms” during the Colonial period. A symbol for womanhood, the moon designated a privy specifically for women. As the country began to push itself farther westward, deep into the Sierra Nevada, men’s privies were eventually abandoned. The women’s space stayed better maintained, and so Luna prevailed as the symbol for the privy.
VI. I’m feeling slightly guilty at having this moment for myself as the moon fades fast in the light of the morning sun, dawn having cracked at least an hour ago. A betrayal of Luna, she’s been left to only see what happens after the sun sets: night soil, a euphemism for what lies in the pit below the privy. Still, I’m revelling, and I imagine a comfort in her liminal presence: here with me, but not really, dimming in the lavender sky.
VII. Other names include bog, dunny, backhouse, kybo. I prefer privy for its preservation of private. I prefer that Cal doesn’t know what my legs look like squatted over a hole, the dewed light revealing the forest of tiny hairs sprouting from my upper thighs. Yet, I’m glad to hear him rustling leaves just fifty yards away.
VIII. In summer 2007, the privy on Mount Whitney was removed from its peak at nearly 15,000 feet above sea level, the highest peak in the contiguous US. Disposal was too dangerous; park rangers in hazmat suits balanced on steep-walled canyons, helicopters navigating rocky winds to carry out 250-pound barrels of waste. Panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada sacrificed in its confiscation, Tsi-Ku left alone in the pale light of the moon, a low wind billowing through her silky purple gown.
IX. In summer 2016, I close my eyes, breathe the air, and imagine myself on a mountain peak, the Sierra Nevada; the wind blows through my dark oily hair, and I am as close to becoming a goddess as I’ll ever be. My eyes open, and I remember that I am goosebumped and serene and seated bare-bottomed, somewhere in New England. Buried in black birch, hawthorn, and aspen. I can hear Cal packing up our tent, prepping our gear for another ten-mile day of sore shoulders, and quiet conversation as our boots lick at leaves and stones still wet from the night’s rain. I’ve never been out West, but Cal and I intend to go next year. I can’t imagine the intimacy of days isolated on a trail with anyone else. Moreso, I can’t imagine them without anyone else.
X. From Middle English prive: private (adj.), close friend, private place (noun). Tsi-Ku knows something about myself that I don’t know, something I’m not yet privy to. I’ve taken the Meyers-Briggs personality test too many times; I’m INFP, trying to find comfort in four letters that might reconcile the part of me that finds comfort in Cal’s unseen presence, and the part that’s glad to be alone out here. The part of me that stands at the peak of Mount Whitney, rooted as the violet skypilot cushioning the rock, lone-flying and transient as the gray-crowned rosy finch circling the peak, and the part of me that knows she wouldn’t ever go alone.
XI. There’s a sentimentality to the privy, to the way the pants freeze in position at the knees. Billy Edd Wheeler captured it in his low acoustic tune, a muted voice resonating lamentations for his own “precious building,” also threatened by removal for uglying the town. Bobby Evan howls a folky melody about the “good old outhouse’s” single window, sun pouring through like it does through the greening branches this morning in mid-May.
XII. Louder rustling, heavy boots advancing quickly, I hardly notice as Cal approaches me in the open air. My knees unfreeze, cheeks peel from the dewy wood, elastic waistband snaps just under my bellybutton before he’s within eyesight. I look up and Luna’s nearly disappeared. After taking a tiny moment to mourn the end of my time here, I gather myself and trot away quickly, passing Cal as he makes his way to the precious throne I’ve just relinquished.
XIII. Tsi-Ku shakes her head at my leaving. In my haste to get up, I’ve forgotten to ask about my future, but the moment is gone. I’m beginning to think these questions will never be answered, neither by Myers-Briggs tests nor a Chinese goddess.
XIV. There is no solitude in privacy.
XV. Somehow, I prefer it this way.
Chloe Forsell lives in Western New York where she is finishing her last semester at SUNY Geneseo, pursuing degrees in French and English (creative writing).