The Fear

Robert Frost - 1874-1963

A lantern light from deeper in the barn
Shone on a man and woman in the door
And threw their lurching shadows on a house
Near by, all dark in every glossy window.
A horse’s hoof pawed once the hollow floor,
And the back of the gig they stood beside
Moved in a little. The man grasped a wheel,
The woman spoke out sharply, “Whoa, stand still!”
“I saw it just as plain as a white plate,”
She said, “as the light on the dashboard ran
Along the bushes at the roadside—a man’s face.
You must have seen it too.”

“I didn’t see it.

Are you sure——”

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“—it was a face?”

“Joel, I’ll have to look. I can’t go in,
I can’t, and leave a thing like that unsettled.
Doors locked and curtains drawn will make no difference.
I always have felt strange when we came home
To the dark house after so long an absence,
And the key rattled loudly into place
Seemed to warn someone to be getting out
At one door as we entered at another.
What if I’m right, and someone all the time—
Don’t hold my arm!”

“I say it’s someone passing.”

“You speak as if this were a travelled road.
You forget where we are. What is beyond
That he’d be going to or coming from
At such an hour of night, and on foot too.
What was he standing still for in the bushes?”

“It’s not so very late—it’s only dark.
There’s more in it than you’re inclined to say.
Did he look like——?”

“He looked like anyone.
I’ll never rest to-night unless I know.
Give me the lantern.”

“You don’t want the lantern.”

She pushed past him and got it for herself.

“You’re not to come,” she said. “This is my business.
If the time’s come to face it, I’m the one
To put it the right way. He’d never dare—
Listen! He kicked a stone. Hear that, hear that!
He’s coming towards us. Joel, go in—please.
Hark!—I don’t hear him now. But please go in.”

“In the first place you can’t make me believe it’s——”

“It is—or someone else he’s sent to watch.
And now’s the time to have it out with him
While we know definitely where he is.
Let him get off and he’ll be everywhere
Around us, looking out of trees and bushes
Till I sha’n’t dare to set a foot outdoors.
And I can’t stand it. Joel, let me go!”

“But it’s nonsense to think he’d care enough.”

“You mean you couldn’t understand his caring.
Oh, but you see he hadn’t had enough—
Joel, I won’t—I won’t—I promise you.
We mustn’t say hard things. You mustn’t either.”

“I’ll be the one, if anybody goes!
But you give him the advantage with this light.
What couldn’t he do to us standing here!
And if to see was what he wanted, why
He has seen all there was to see and gone.”

He appeared to forget to keep his hold,
But advanced with her as she crossed the grass.

“What do you want?” she cried to all the dark.
She stretched up tall to overlook the light
That hung in both hands hot against her skirt.

“There’s no one; so you’re wrong,” he said.

“There is.—
What do you want?” she cried, and then herself
Was startled when an answer really came.

“Nothing.” It came from well along the road.

She reached a hand to Joel for support:
The smell of scorching woollen made her faint.

“What are you doing round this house at night?”

“Nothing.” A pause: there seemed no more to say.

And then the voice again: “You seem afraid.
I saw by the way you whipped up the horse.
I’ll just come forward in the lantern light
And let you see.”

“Yes, do.—Joel, go back!”

She stood her ground against the noisy steps
That came on, but her body rocked a little.

“You see,” the voice said.

“Oh.” She looked and looked.

“You don’t see—I’ve a child here by the hand.”

“What’s a child doing at this time of night——?”

“Out walking. Every child should have the memory
Of at least one long-after-bedtime walk.
What, son?”

“Then I should think you’d try to find
Somewhere to walk——”

“The highway as it happens—
We’re stopping for the fortnight down at Dean’s.”

“But if that’s all—Joel—you realize—
You won’t think anything. You understand?
You understand that we have to be careful.
This is a very, very lonely place.
Joel!” She spoke as if she couldn’t turn.
The swinging lantern lengthened to the ground,
It touched, it struck it, clattered and went out.

 

More by Robert Frost

Birches

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay 
As ice-storms do.  Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain.  They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer.  He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground.  He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.  Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

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.