A Scary Frost Poem for You, On Halloween

Becca Wadlinger

Oct 19, 2011

I write to you this Halloween dressed as Margot Tenenbaum, excited to share a poem that never graces the "Best Scary Poems" lists so dear to poetry blogs around this time of year. The poem is "The Witch of Coos" by Robert Frost, and can be read in full here. Below, I've highlighted some of my favorite parts. So, brave reader, take my hand. We'll enter the haunted house and look into the monster's eyes together. The first stanza sets up the spooky scene: an outsider takes cover at a stranger's home (I picture Riff Raff opening the door to the Frankenstein Place). Frost begins:
I staid the night for shelter at a farm Behind the mountains, with a mother and son, Two old-believers. They did all the talking.
What follows is a dramatic dialogue wherein the mother and son banter about witchery, dead souls, and secrets. And then there's this:
SON: You wouldn't want to tell him what we have Up attic, mother? MOTHER: Bones -- a skeleton.
Bones! In the attic! And it gets better: the demented duo has trapped the skeleton inside the attic because it is alive and trying to get out:
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 Of door and headboard. Where it wants to get Is back to the cellar where it came from.
The son tells the outsider that the skeleton "carried itself like a pile of dishes" up the cellar steps forty years ago--a fact that becomes even creepier when we collectively realize that the son is forty-something years old and still lives with (and seems to enjoy being chastised by) his elderly mother. Apparently, the woman's husband, Toffile, had gone to bed early that night, leaving his wife to confront the walking bones alone. She opens the cellar door because she is curious to see what the bones look like (she imagines them "put together / Not like a man, but like a chandelier."). She describes the confrontation in detail:
½ (A tongue of fire Flashed out and licked along his upper teeth. Smoke rolled inside the sockets of his eyes.) Then he came at me with one hand outstretched, The way he did in life once ½
Ah-ha! The woman knows the bones. She has known then intimately, or so it seems. Is this, we wonder, the body of another lonely wanderer who spent the night in a stranger's farmhouse and got a little too close with the eccentric-but-fun wife? Back to the story: the woman strikes the skeleton and sends its bones flying in every direction. ("Where did I see one of those pieces lately?" she wonders. "Hand me my button-box--") The skeleton ascends the stairs, and the woman shouts to her husband to close the door. He can't be bothered. Then, she loses sight of the skeleton:
I could see nothing. 'Toffile, I don't see it. 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 ½
The couple decides that the bones are looking for a door to escape their house, and come up with the impromptu plan to trap it in the attic. Personally, the option to let the skeleton amble on down the road would be my choice in this scenario, but these are people have a literal "skeleton-in-the-closet" problem whose secret they want to keep. The skeleton takes the trap (though, curiously, Toffile isn't able to see or hear it) and they nail the opening shut and push the bed in front of the attic door. And that's where it stays. Towards the end of her monologue, the woman reports:
½ 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, 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.
So the wife promised to perpetually torture the confused, dead bones of the guy who participated in this fatal extra-marital affair? It doesn't get much stranger than that. Towards the end of the poem, the son speaks again, stating, "We never could find out whose bones they were." But his mother corrects him ("Yes, we could too, son. Tell the truth for once") and admits that Toffile killed the man:
They were a man's his father killed for me. I mean a man he killed instead of me. The least I could do was to help dig their grave.
The poem ends with a short stanza that both questions and verifies the woman's haunted tale:
She hadn't found the finger-bone she wanted Among the buttons poured out in her lap. I verified the name next morning: Toffile. The rural letter-box said Toffile Lajway.
I shudder to imagine sleeping soundly through the night at this house, but the stranger doesn't seem too bothered by it all. And what can we make of the pun "Toffile Lajway" at the end? I'd be interested to hear what you think. Anyway, it is a peculiar Frost poem, and there is much to admire here: the suspense, the curious narrator, Frost's lyric control. Thank you for taking the time to read it with me½ and Happy Halloween from your friends at Gulf Coast.