The Code

- 1874-1963

There were three in the meadow by the brook
Gathering up windrows, piling cocks of hay,
With an eye always lifted toward the west
Where an irregular sun-bordered cloud
Darkly advanced with a perpetual dagger
Flickering across its bosom. Suddenly
One helper, thrusting pitchfork in the ground,
Marched himself off the field and home. One stayed.
The town-bred farmer failed to understand.

“What is there wrong?”

“Something you just now said.”

“What did I say?”

“About our taking pains.”

“To cock the hay?—because it’s going to shower?
I said that more than half an hour ago.
I said it to myself as much as you.”

“You didn’t know. But James is one big fool.
He thought you meant to find fault with his work.
That’s what the average farmer would have meant.
James would take time, of course, to chew it over
Before he acted: he’s just got round to act.”

“He is a fool if that’s the way he takes me.”

“Don’t let it bother you. You’ve found out something.
The hand that knows his business won’t be told
To do work better or faster—those two things.
I’m as particular as anyone:
Most likely I’d have served you just the same.
But I know you don’t understand our ways.
You were just talking what was in your mind,
What was in all our minds, and you weren’t hinting.
Tell you a story of what happened once:
I was up here in Salem at a man’s
Named Sanders with a gang of four or five
Doing the haying. No one liked the boss.
He was one of the kind sports call a spider,
All wiry arms and legs that spread out wavy
From a humped body nigh as big’s a biscuit.
But work! that man could work, especially
If by so doing he could get more work
Out of his hired help. I’m not denying
He was hard on himself. I couldn’t find
That he kept any hours—not for himself.
Daylight and lantern-light were one to him:
I’ve heard him pounding in the barn all night.
But what he liked was someone to encourage.
Them that he couldn’t lead he’d get behind
And drive, the way you can, you know, in mowing—
Keep at their heels and threaten to mow their legs off.
I’d seen about enough of his bulling tricks
(We call that bulling). I’d been watching him.
So when he paired off with me in the hayfield
To load the load, thinks I, Look out for trouble.
I built the load and topped it off; old Sanders
Combed it down with a rake and says, ‘O. K.’
Everything went well till we reached the barn
With a big catch to empty in a bay.
You understand that meant the easy job
For the man up on top of throwing down
The hay and rolling it off wholesale,
Where on a mow it would have been slow lifting.
You wouldn’t think a fellow’d need much urging
Under these circumstances, would you now?
But the old fool seizes his fork in both hands,
And looking up bewhiskered out of the pit,
Shouts like an army captain, ‘Let her come!’
Thinks I, D’ye mean it? ‘What was that you said?’
I asked out loud, so’s there’d be no mistake,
‘Did you say, Let her come?’ ‘Yes, let her come.’
He said it over, but he said it softer.
Never you say a thing like that to a man,
Not if he values what he is. God, I’d as soon
Murdered him as left out his middle name.
I’d built the load and knew right where to find it.
Two or three forkfuls I picked lightly round for
Like meditating, and then I just dug in
And dumped the rackful on him in ten lots.
I looked over the side once in the dust
And caught sight of him treading-water-like,
Keeping his head above. ‘Damn ye,’ I says,
‘That gets ye!’ He squeaked like a squeezed rat.
That was the last I saw or heard of him.
I cleaned the rack and drove out to cool off.
As I sat mopping hayseed from my neck,
And sort of waiting to be asked about it,
One of the boys sings out, ‘Where’s the old man?’
‘I left him in the barn under the hay.
If ye want him, ye can go and dig him out.’
They realized from the way I swobbed my neck
More than was needed something must be up.
They headed for the barn; I stayed where I was.
They told me afterward. First they forked hay,
A lot of it, out into the barn floor.
Nothing! They listened for him. Not a rustle.
I guess they thought I’d spiked him in the temple
Before I buried him, or I couldn’t have managed.
They excavated more. ‘Go keep his wife
Out of the barn.’ Someone looked in a window,
And curse me if he wasn’t in the kitchen
Slumped way down in a chair, with both his feet
Stuck in the oven, the hottest day that summer.
He looked so clean disgusted from behind
There was no one that dared to stir him up,
Or let him know that he was being looked at.
Apparently I hadn’t buried him
(I may have knocked him down); but my just trying
To bury him had hurt his dignity.
He had gone to the house so’s not to meet me.
He kept away from us all afternoon.
We tended to his hay. We saw him out
After a while picking peas in his garden:
He couldn’t keep away from doing something.”

“Weren’t you relieved to find he wasn’t dead?”

“No! and yet I don’t know—it’s hard to say.
I went about to kill him fair enough.”

“You took an awkward way. Did he discharge you?”

“Discharge me? No! He knew I did just right.”

More by Robert Frost

Home Burial

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him.  She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again.  He spoke
Advancing toward her:  'What is it you see
From up there always--for I want to know.'
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time:  'What is it you see,'
Mounting until she cowered under him.
'I will find out now--you must tell me, dear.'
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn't see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn't see.
But at last he murmured, 'Oh,' and again, 'Oh.'

'What is it--what?' she said.
					'Just that I see.'

'You don't,' she challenged.  'Tell me what it is.'

'The wonder is I didn't see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it--that's the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill.  We haven't to mind those.
But I understand:  it is not the stones,
But the child's mound--'

				'Don't, don't, don't, don't,' she cried.

She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the bannister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
'Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost?'

'Not you!  Oh, where's my hat?  Oh, I don't need it!
I must get out of here.  I must get air.
I don't know rightly whether any man can.'

'Amy!  Don't go to someone else this time.
Listen to me.  I won't come down the stairs.'
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
'There's something I should like to ask you, dear.'

'You don't know how to ask it.'

					'Help me, then.'

Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.

'My words are nearly always an offense.
I don't know how to speak of anything
So as to please you.  But I might be taught
I should suppose.  I can't say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I'd bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you're a-mind to name.
Though I don't like such things 'twixt those that love.
Two that don't love can't live together without them.
But two that do can't live together with them.'
She moved the latch a little.  'Don't--don't go.
Don't carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it's something human.
Let me into your grief.  I'm not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out.  Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother--loss of a first child
So inconsolably--in the face of love.
You'd think his memory might be satisfied--'

'There you go sneering now!'

					'I'm not, I'm not!
You make me angry.  I'll come down to you.
God, what a woman!  And it's come to this,
A man can't speak of his own child that's dead.'

'You can't because you don't know how to speak.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand--how could you?--his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man?  I didn't know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in.  I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don't know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby's grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.'

'I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I'm cursed.  God, if I don't believe I'm cursed.'

'I can repeat the very words you were saying.
"Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build."
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor.
You couldn't care!  The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world's evil.  I won't have grief so
If I can change it.  Oh, I won't, I won't!'

'There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won't go now.  You're crying.  Close the door.
The heart's gone out of it:  why keep it up.
Amy!  There's someone coming down the road!'

'You--oh, you think the talk is all.  I must go--
Somewhere out of this house.  How can I make you--'

'If--you--do!'  She was opening the door wider.
'Where do you mean to go?  First tell me that.
I'll follow and bring you back by force.  I will!--'

To Earthward

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length. 

Christmas Trees

A Christmas circular letter
  
  
The city had withdrawn into itself  
And left at last the country to the country;  
When between whirls of snow not come to lie  
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove  
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,   
Yet did in country fashion in that there  
He sat and waited till he drew us out,  
A-buttoning coats, to ask him who he was.  
He proved to be the city come again  
To look for something it had left behind   
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.  
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;  
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place  
Where houses all are churches and have spires.  
I hadn't thought of them as Christmas trees.    
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment  
To sell them off their feet to go in cars  
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,  
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.  
I'd hate to have them know it if I was.      
Yet more I'd hate to hold my trees, except  
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,  
Beyond the time of profitable growth—  
The trial by market everything must come to.  
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.      
Then whether from mistaken courtesy  
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether  
From hope of hearing good of what was mine,  
I said, "There aren't enough to be worth while."
  
"I could soon tell how many they would cut,     
You let me look them over."  
 
                                    "You could look.  
But don't expect I'm going to let you have them."  
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close  
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few     
Quite solitary and having equal boughs  
All round and round. The latter he nodded "Yes" to,  
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,  
With a buyer's moderation, "That would do."  
I thought so too, but wasn't there to say so.   
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,  
And came down on the north. 
 
                                    He said, "A thousand."  
  
"A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?"  
  
He felt some need of softening that to me:       
"A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars."  
  
Then I was certain I had never meant  
To let him have them. Never show surprise!  
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside  
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents    
(For that was all they figured out apiece)—   
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends  
I should be writing to within the hour  
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,  
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools     
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
  
A thousand Christmas trees I didn't know I had!  
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,  
As may be shown by a simple calculation.  
Too bad I couldn't lay one in a letter.       
I can't help wishing I could send you one,  
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.