We knew the rules and punishments:
three lashes for lack of diligence,
eight for disobeying mother
or telling lies.... No blood, he’d say,
and no remission. Came a day
he started keeping my account,
as at a store. And came another
he called me to the tannery:
a Sunday, day of settlement.
I’d paid one-third the owed amount
when he, to my astonishment,
handed the blue-beech switch to me.
Always, the greatest of my fears
were not his whippings, but his tears,
and he was tearful now. I dared
not disobey, nor strike him hard.
“I will consider a weak blow
no blow at all, rather a show
of cowardice,” he said. No blood
and no remission. Thus he paid
himself the balance that I owed,
our mingled blood a token of
a thing that went unnamed: his love.
This nation, too, is his bad child,
fails him utterly, drives him wild
with rage and grief and will be scourged
nearly to death before she, purged,
may rise and stand. No blood, I hear
him saying still, and no remission.
So hang him today, Virginia; cheer
his body swaying in the air—
tomorrow you will learn what’s true:
hanging’s a thing he’s done for you.