The Witch of Coos

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,
     But won’t, should be burned at the stake or something.
     Summoning spirits isn’t “Button, button,
     Who’s got the button?” I’d have you understand.
The Son
     Mother can make a common table rear
     And kick with two legs like an army mule.
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,
     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?
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
     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
     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.
     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.
     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
     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
     Struck the hard cellar bottom. And then some one
     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 any one who could be there.
     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.
     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.
     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.
     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.)
     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.
     (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.
     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.
     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,
     “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.
     It’s with us in the room, though. It’s the bones.”
     “What bones?” “The cellar bones–out of the grave.”
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