Granddaddy at War
by Barbara Diggs
My grandfather stands straight as the rifle he won’t be allowed to touch. Trenches may be choked with corpses across the ocean, but a weapon in the hands of a black man is no less disruptive to world order. Better for him not to know the sleek feel of power, become intoxicated by its kick and heft. In the battle for democracy, he is best armed with a shovel.
Never mind. My grandfather is perfectly willing to do whatever he can for his country. He is surprised to realize that he believes in the elusive promise of America; feels bound to the old red, white, and blue. Ever since the declaration of war, he has heard a faint crackling in the air, as if someone was burning stubble down the road. He’d pause in his tobacco field, sickle in mid-swing, to let the sound run through him. He likes the fire it sets in his blood, the way it fractures his vision.
It’s the sound of the world breaking open, he tells my grandmother later, after walking the thirty miles to Petersburg to enlist. Look here: Already they have given him this fine olive uniform, taught him to wrap his puttees smartly. Already they have promised to photograph him against a backdrop of grandeur. My grandmother turns away, catching her words between her teeth. But he reads them in the stiff line of her back: You really think they gonna let you be a man?
The sharp-jawed military photographer tells my grandfather to turn slightly and stand still. My grandfather does so. A shadow of distaste on the photographer’s face bares its teeth at my grandfather but today it cannot touch him. My grandfather folds his arms and looks steadily into the camera lens as if staring down a rifle barrel. The crackling sounds; he knows this is his chance.
He will show the photographer. He will show the Germans. He will show everyone.
Barbara Diggs’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Lunate Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Reflex Fiction, and Spelk. Her work was also shortlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2021. She lives in Paris, France with her family and a speedy turtle. Come chat with her on Twitter @bdiggswrites.
Photograph of James Morton Moss is used with permission of the The Library of Virginia and featured in the exhibition True Sons of Freedom. (Click to see the full-resolution image.)