Short stories I wish I had written: “The Witch of Coos”— a tale from Robert Frost’s dark side

Like John Greenleaf Whittier before him, Robert Frost is often thought of as a bard of cozy evenings by a fire, an impression created by poems such as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,”  “After Apple Picking,” “Mending Wall,” and “The Road Not Taken,” anthologized in middle- and high-school textbooks in this country for generations.

Students who once spent a fifth-grade art class sketching the scene in “Stopping by Woods” in crayons have often returned to reconsider the poem in high school and later to find a depth and ambiguous messages unsuspected in their earlier years.

Frost’s 1922 poem “The Witch of Coos” is composed in unrhymed iambic pentameter and may be read as a short story or even acted as a brief one-act play. In either case, it conveys the reader into a dark and frightening world of infidelity, murder, and supernatural revenge and is as graphic in its details as anything by Stephen King.

The setting for the poem is the region north of Mount Washington in New Hampshire known as Coos — the second “o” in the name usually is printed with an umlaut — an area known in Frost’s time as a mostly uncharted wilderness of dense forests and isolated populations of people Frost cryptically calls “old-believers.”

The poem begins when an unnamed narrator — perhaps Frost himself — tells us in a brief introduction that, while out hiking or hunting, he was forced to seek refuge in a farmhouse when a massive snowstorm moved in. The “old-believers” in residence are a mother and son surnamed “Lajway” whose personal appearances Frost never describes but whose images emerge in a series of alternating monologues that constitute the bulk of the poem and out of which Frost weaves his terrifying tale.

The mother speaks first, telling the listener that being a witch is not to be treated lightly and, when the son enthusiastically interjects that his mother can make a table rear up and kick its legs like an army mule, his mother dismisses his comment, insisting that a witch’s powers are not intended for stunts.

The son is an interesting character who often sounds like an adolescent when describing in vivid detail yet somehow blandly supernatural events with what should be a mixture of awe and fear. One senses that he has told the story so often that it no longer arouses terror in him and it comes as something of a surprise when the reader puts Frost’s clues together and realizes that the son is 40 years old.

In what almost seems — and may be! — a well-rehearsed routine, the son asks, “You wouldn’t want to tell him what we have up attic, Mother?”

And the old woman replies, “Bones. A skeleton.”

Having jarred the house guest with this revelation, the son tells him that this skeleton is Undead: that at night it sometimes comes down the stairs and attempts to escape — but the headboard of the mother’s bed was long ago nailed against the door to hold the bones prisoner in the attic. 

In frustration it stands “…brushing [its] chalky skull with chalky fingers….”  The son goes on to say that on a stormy winter night 40 years before, the skeleton came out of a grave in the old house’s cellar and “carried itself like a pile of dishes” through the rooms on the main floor of the house and then up the stairs to the bedroom of his parents.

There his amorous father — with the curious name of “Toffile” — was lying in bed, keeping warm and was frustrated that his wife, dozing in their downstairs parlor, was avoiding joining him. “I was a baby,” says the son, “I don’t know where I was.” Considering this fact, his graphically detailed account of the events is puzzling to say the least.

Then the mother takes over the narrative. Hinting of a troubled marriage, she states, “The only fault my husband found with me/ I went to sleep before I went to bed” — she after all claims to be a witch — and then proceeds to tell how, dozing before a dying fire, she was awakened by the eerie sounds of halting footsteps emanating from the cellar on that long-ago night.

She knew at once, she says, it was bones from a grave in the cellar. “And then, someone began the stairs, two footsteps for each step, the way a man with one leg and a crutch/Or a little child comes up….

Deep now in Stephen King territory, she describes how she went to the closed cellar door and driven by curiosity “to see how they were mounted for this walk” that overcomes her fear, she throws the door open to find the skeleton standing right before her.

“A tongue of fire/Flashed out and licked along his upper teeth. Smoke rolled around the sockets of his eyes.”

The skeleton advances on her with one hand outstretched “the way he did in life once” and she strikes the hand, causing it to fly off the skeletal arm and scatter in fragments across the floor.

In a moment of macabre comedy she interrupts her tale and turns to her son: “Where did I see one of those pieces lately? Hand me my button box — it must be there.” The reader envisions the mother searching earnestly through her button box through the remainder of the story.

At this point, certain details begin to emerge as clues in the story: the fact that the events the “witch” describes occurred as she was starting to drift off to sleep, the hints of a shaky marriage, the woman’s awareness that there was a grave in the dirt-floor cellar, and her curious statement that the skeleton extended its bony hand “the way he did in life once” — but there are more to come.

She then says the skeleton made its way from room to room and suddenly became invisible but she insists that she could hear its footsteps ascending the stairs to the couple’s bedroom though the husband apparently heard nothing. Nearly paralyzed with fear, she whispered to Toffile that they were being haunted by “the bones,” and when he sleepily asked, “What bones?” she told him they were the bones out of the cellar grave.

Insisting that the invisible skeleton was then there in the room with them, she says triumphantly, “That made him throw his bare legs out of bed/And sit up by me and take hold of me.”

As they shivered in each other’s arms the “witch” told her husband, “The uncommonly deep snow has made him think/Of his old song ‘The Wild Colonial Boy,’/He always used to sing ….”  Clearly the two knew more about the skeleton’s past than Frost has up to this point let on.

There follows another rather comically macabre episode in which the couple first considered that they might “mow” the room with their arms at knee-level and “bring the chalk-pile down.” But when the “witch” asserts that she heard the skeleton’s creaking footsteps ascending the staircase to the attic — “I heard them. Toffile didn’t seem to hear them” — she suddenly bolted and slammed the door behind them, telling her husband to nail the headboard of their bed against it, thus trapping the skeleton in the attic.

But she tells the guest that, in the years since the events — long after Toffile’s death — from time to time in the middle of the night, she can hear the skeleton clanking down the attic stairs and scratching against the door, forever trapped.

When her son suddenly interrupts her story, asserting that they never could find out whose bones they were, the “witch” insists, “Yes we could, too, son. Tell the truth for once./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.”

These last three sentences directed at their guest constitute the “Aha!” moment in the story. Years before the night on which the poem takes place, the “witch” and her husband, Toffile, had a hired man living on the premises.

Perhaps sensing that their marriage was troubled, he commenced an affair with the wife that was subsequently discovered by the cuckolded husband. Enraged, Toffile apparently threatened to kill his wife but to save herself she helped him to murder the hired man and bury his body in their dirt-floored cellar. 

Subsequently seeking vengeance, the dead man rose from his grave and, even after 40 years, the skeleton continues to haunt his former lover.

Or does he? The careful reader will note that the only actual witness to the events is the “witch” herself.  Her husband has died but evidently saw and heard nothing and the son was just an infant.

Perhaps unintentionally she states that the night the skeleton came out of the cellar she had been falling asleep and that she occasionally wakes in the night to hear it scratching on the attic door. So did the events really occur

 Is this a tale of supernatural revenge, an eccentric and guilt-ridden woman’s fantasy, or a tale cooked up by the woman and her son to frighten city folks? Just who was the father of her simple-minded son? And is it a coincidence that the name “Toffile” suggests the German word “teufel” meaning “devil”?

One piece of evidence that might add some credibility to her story would be the finger bone — but Frost tells us at the end, “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.”

Like so many tales involving the supernatural, the author places within it a series of red herrings that complicate the interpretation even after a number of readings.

This is equally true of many of Frost’s other writings that have no reference to the supernatural but are never as straightforward as they might appear at first. Critics have interpreted “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as everything from a celebration of the quiet beauties of life to a morbid meditation on impending death.

And, in “The Witch of Coos,” Frost appears to be peering into the depths of the human heart and finding there disturbing elements of darkness appropriate for a stormy winter night.

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