Thicker Than Water
My great-grandmother was a thunderhead trapped against a mountain’s peak, a firestorm set free in a desert with nothing to burn. She lived her life searching for an avenue in which to escape this life, thinking little of what she would be leaving behind. She gave her children their lives almost accidentally, and once they were born, she was never quite sure what to do with what she had created.
I can assure you she didn’t intend for anything other than the usual result when she guzzled the
contents of a gas can the summer of ‘33. She craved it; the same way you’d crave a lemonade on a hot July day she told my mother later. When the can was empty she curled up against the back wall of the barn, closed her eyes, and waited. If she got what she had wanted I can imagine she would have burst into a fireball large enough to take the barn with her, the farmhouse too if she was lucky.
I can almost taste the metallic disappointment of her tears when instead of turning into the supernova she had longed to become, she was met with stillness and silence. I wish I knew just how long she sat there before resigning herself back to the house for the night. Did she dare tell anyone what she had done?
Her child was born that winter, sparks flying from her mouth and nose as she was pulled screaming into this world. My grandmother’s first act as a human being was to leave soft burns on her mother’s breast, the imprint of her infant lips cast as scars my great-grandmother would carry for the rest of her life. And while she only left burns that first time, her breath always carried the scent of gasoline.
I do not remember my great-grandmother; she died when I was small. Her death was of old age and frustration, having never found what she was looking for in her self-inflicted wounds. For most people, dying of old age is the prize, the intention, but to my great-grandmother, it likely tasted like bitter defeat, reminding her of all the attempts she made to make an early escape, and how each had failed.
While I never knew her, I did know my grandmother; I remember her scorched wooden countertops, how my grandfather’s eyebrows would smoke following a quarrel, how he called her devil woman but never in malice, how warm her embraces were, how the scent of gasoline hung about her skin no matter what lotions or soaps she used. How tied to life and earth and breath she was, so unlike the woman who bore her.
My mother’s warmth is muted. She is more familiar than mythical, more cozy than searing. She has her moments, of course, where she becomes a blistering sunburn, a smoldering coal. But there is a notable absence of sparks and scorches, which was all the better. After all, a child with fire is a troublesome gift, grandmother would say with a dry chuckle, smoke tumbling from her lips.
I have neither sparks or scorches, for which I should be grateful. I am cooler than my mother, and therefore can pass as ungifted, as someone unbothered and boring. My grandmother, my mother- they never shared my great grandmother’s yearning. A death of old age is their ideal, a capstone to lives they managed to fill with meaning and acceptance. They have hoped that in time we can not only forgive but forget. But I don’t want to forget. I can’t, even if I wanted to. I’m too much like her.
Sometimes, to remind myself where I came from, I slice the palm of my hand and allow the blood to pool onto the stone countertop. I touch a lit match to the drops and watch them catch easily, unlocking the scent of gasoline. They flare high and burn, yearning for something higher, just out of reach. Something I hope my great-grandmother was able to find, when she finally, after 92 years, got what she wanted.
I watch the heat. I want to swallow it and never let go. I know I shouldn’t, but I don’t want to let the fire go out; I do not want to have a daughter, only to watch as she forgets this history, this heritage. I’ve made it this far, but don’t know if I can stop myself any longer. I am thirsty. So thirsty.
Sarah Krenicki works at a nonprofit by day and writes whenever she has free time. Her short fiction has been published in Gemini Magazine, Syntax and Salt, and 50 Word Stories. She lives in a small town on the edge of the woods with her husband and particularly fluffy cat.