Verse > Anthologies > Harriet Monroe, ed. > Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 1912–22
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Harriet Monroe, ed. (1860–1936).  Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  1912–22.
 
The Witch of Coos
By Robert Frost
 
Circa 1922

I STAID the night for shelter at a farm
Behind the mountain, with a mother and son,
Two old-believers. They did all the talking.
 
The Mother
  Folks think a witch who has familiar spirits
  She could call up to pass a winter evening,        5
  But won’t, should be burned at the stake or something.
  Summoning spirits isn’t “Button, button,
  Who’s got the button,” you’re to understand.
The Son
  Mother can make a common table rear
  And kick with two legs like an army mule.        10
The Mother
  And when I’ve done it, what good have I done?
  Rather than tip a table for you, let me
  Tell you what Ralle the Sioux Control once told me.
  He said the dead had souls, but when I asked him
  How that could be—I thought the dead were souls,        15
  He broke my trance. Don’t that make you suspicious
  That there’s something the dead are keeping back?
  Yes, there’s something the dead are keeping back.
The Son
  You wouldn’t want to tell him what we have
  Up attic, mother?        20
The Mother
                    Bones—a skeleton.
The Son
  But the headboard of mother’s bed is pushed
  Against the attic door: the door is nailed.
  It’s harmless. Mother hears it in the night
  Halting perplexed behind the barrier        25
  Of door and headboard. Where it wants to get
  Is back into the cellar where it came from.
The Mother
  We’ll never let them, will we, son? We’ll never!
The Son
  It left the cellar forty years ago
  And carried itself like a pile of dishes        30
  Up one flight from the cellar to the kitchen,
  Another from the kitchen to the bedroom,
  Another from the bedroom to the attic,
  Right past both father and mother, and neither stopped it.
  Father had gone upstairs; mother was downstairs.        35
  I was a baby: I don’t know where I was.
The Mother
  The only fault my husband found with me—
  I went to sleep before I went to bed,
  Especially in winter when the bed
  Might just as well be ice and the clothes snow.        40
  The night the bones came up the cellar-stairs
  Toffile had gone to bed alone and left me,
  But left an open door to cool the room off
  So as to sort of turn me out of it.
  I was just coming to myself enough        45
  To wonder where the cold was coming from,
  When I heard Toffile upstairs in the bedroom
  And thought I heard him downstairs in the cellar.
  The board we had laid down to walk dry-shod on
  When there was water in the cellar in spring        50
  Struck the hard cellar bottom. And then someone
  Began the stairs, two footsteps for each step,
  The way a man with one leg and a crutch,
  Or little child, comes up. It wasn’t Toffile:
  It wasn’t anyone who could be there.        55
  The bulkhead double-doors were double-locked
  And swollen tight and buried under snow.
  The cellar windows were banked up with sawdust
  And swollen tight and buried under snow.
  It was the bones. I knew them—and good reason.        60
  My first impulse was to get to the knob
  And hold the door. But the bones didn’t try
  The door; they halted helpless on the landing,
  Waiting for things to happen in their favor.
  The faintest restless rustling ran all through them.        65
  I never could have done the thing I did
  If the wish hadn’t been too strong in me
  To see how they were mounted for this walk.
  I had a vision of them put together
  Not like a man, but like a chandelier.        70
  So suddenly I flung the door wide on him.
  A moment he stood balancing with emotion,
  And all but lost himself. (A tongue of fire
  Flashed out and licked along his upper teeth.
  Smoke rolled inside the sockets of his eyes.)        75
  Then he came at me with one hand outstretched,
  The way he did in life once; but this time
  I struck the hand off brittle on the floor,
  And fell back from him on the floor myself.
  The finger-pieces slid in all directions.        80
  (Where did I see one of those pieces lately?
  Hand me my button-box—it must be there.)
 
  I sat up on the floor and shouted, “Toffile,
  It’s coming up to you.” It had its choice
  Of the door to the cellar or the hall.        85
  It took the hall door for the novelty,
  And set off briskly for so slow a thing,
  Still going every which way in the joints, though,
  So that it looked like lightning or a scribble,
  From the slap I had just now given its hand.        90
  I listened till it almost climbed the stairs
  From the hall to the only finished bedroom,
  Before I got up to do anything;
  Then ran and shouted, “Shut the bedroom door,
  Toffile, for my sake!” “Company,” he said,        95
  “Don’t make me get up; I’m too warm in bed.”
  So lying forward weakly on the handrail
  I pushed myself upstairs, and in the light
  (The kitchen had been dark) I had to own
  I could see nothing. “Toffile, I don’t see it.        100
  It’s with us in the room, though. It’s the bones.”
  “What bones?” “The cellar bones—out of the grave.”
 
  That made him throw his bare legs out of bed
  And sit up by me and take hold of me.
  I wanted to put out the light and see        105
  If I could see it, or else mow the room,
  With our arms at the level of our knees,
  And bring the chalk-pile down. “I’ll tell you what—
  It’s looking for another door to try.
  The uncommonly deep snow has made him think        110
  Of his old song, The Wild Colonial Boy,
  He always used to sing along the tote-road.
  He’s after an open door to get out-doors.
  Let’s trap him with an open door up attic.”
  Toffile agreed to that, and sure enough,        115
  Almost the moment he was given an opening,
  The steps began to climb the attic stairs.
  I heard them. Toffile didn’t seem to hear them.
  “Quick!” I slammed to the door and held the knob.
  “Toffile, get nails.” I made him nail the door shut,        120
  And push the headboard of the bed against it.
 
  Then we asked was there anything
  Up attic that we’d ever want again.
  The attic was less to us than the cellar.
  If the bones liked the attic, let them like it,        125
  Let them stay in the attic. When they sometimes
  Come down the stairs at night and stand perplexed
  Behind the door and headboard of the bed,
  Brushing their chalky skull with chalky fingers,
  With sounds like the dry rattling of a shutter,        130
  That’s what I sit up in the dark to say—
  To no one any more since Toffile died.
  Let them stay in the attic since they went there.
  I promised Toffile to be cruel to them
  For helping them be cruel once to him.        135
The Son
  We think they had a grave down in the cellar.
The Mother
  We know they had a grave down in the cellar.
The Son
  We never could find out whose bones they were.
The Mother
  Yes, we could too, son. Tell the truth for once.
  They were a man’s his father killed for me.        140
  I mean a man he killed instead of me.
  The least I could do was help dig their grave.
  We were about it one night in the cellar.
  Son knows the story: but ’twas not for him
  To tell the truth, suppose the time had come.        145
  Son looks surprised to see me end a lie
  We’d kept up all these years between ourselves
  So as to have it ready for outsiders.
  But tonight I don’t care enough to lie—
  I don’t remember why I ever cared.        150
  Toffile, if he were here, I don’t believe
  Could tell you why he ever cared himself….
 
  She hadn’t found the finger-bone she wanted
  Among the buttons poured out in her lap.
 
  I verified the name next morning: Toffile.        155
  The rural letter-box said Toffile Barre.
 
 
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