“The Skeleton told all the flesh off its bones.” In challenge 307, Don Webb asks for an explication of 'told' in that line.
One has first to go back to the original artwork, displayed alongside the poem. It was entitled, “Have you heard the one about…” That in itself is enough to suggest a reason for using the word ‘told’. From that title one can deduce that the book may be a joke book and that would explain the skeleton’s grin and that rat’s wrapped attention.
But if we go beyond that, don’t all skeletons grin? How long had this one been reading the book and is it really a book of jokes or is it the book of Life. Death has the last laugh because the book is empty. The skeleton has no story left to tell. The corpse has decayed to the point where there are only bones and eyeballs. The eyeballs can still read but the book appears to have no words in it.
The skeleton finished the book long ago and has had to make up his own stories for a long time to keep that rat entertained. The word ‘told’ is in the active voice. This is a deliberate activity. Perhaps he thinks he has fooled the rat or that the rat is actually his friend. At any rate the rat is his sole companion, and he the rat’s. To be sitting there locked in this battle against time, with a companion who would gnaw on your bones is a cruel joke.
Tolled can also be implied in reading aloud, as the skeleton does. The slow relentless passage of time marked out at a steady pace. He tolled the skin off his bones, in minutes, hours, days…
In this scenario, death has not quite had the last laugh. The last laugh is still to come. There are two other players here, the rat who will stay alive if he can still find food and the skeleton whose eyeballs have saved him thus far. Of course if he stops telling, the rat will eat his eyeballs and then the rat too will starve.
There is irony in the word told. It is right at the beginning of the poem but is already past tense. There is no hope for either of them. Death will at last have the last laugh - for every tale like every tail must come to an end.