When I admit my secret wish is to get struck by lightning, I’m not speaking figuratively. I don’t mean struck by a blinding desire or love at first sight. I’m talking about a bolt five times as hot as the surface of the sun. A stroke that can run 100,000 miles in just one second, that stretches and sparks over three miles long. But I want more than the science, the pie charts, the hard facts. I want the feeling the writer Gretel Ehrlich—twice-struck in her life—describes during her first experience with lightning as it moved through her body as she walked the Wyoming plains: it felt, she claims, “as though sequins had been poured down my legs.”
I’d settle for pomegranate seeds spinning down the white of my red hair’s part. A sparkler down my spine. Shark teeth teasing my toe-tips. My lips vibrating as if they could translate the troposphere. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of an empty field, a parking lot, a car’s beckoning antenna.
I remember the day my eleventh grade English teacher Mrs. Norman showed us her lightning scars. She said she’d been struck the moment she placed her car key into her vehicle’s lock in the parking lot of her grocery store. The force of the hit had spun her in a complete circle, a full 360 degrees. She was scorched with two inch-long scars: one where the bolt entered, on her right thumb-tip, and one on that same arm’s elbow, where the electricity exited her body. Mrs. Norman had strawberry blonde hair—like mine—and fair, freckled skin, so her lightning scars showed up starkly as matching rose-pink stars. I imagined mine would resemble those exact marks. I imagined that, through having them, I’d never have to worry about my shyness, about the low-pitched tone of my voice, about never having a story impressive enough to tell strangers I’d meet at parties or on airplanes. I’d possess a singular tale of danger and survival. I’d be seared by the sky. I’d bear those rare beauty marks hard-won by the wildest charge and chance.
Many people have uploaded pictures of their lightning scars to the internet to share the arresting visual aftermath of their encounters. I’m not naïve. I know being struck by lightning isn’t all shivery leg-sequins and synesthesia. I know a bolt can cause heart damage, knock your head against a boulder, throw you into waves of amnesia. Your lungs inflate. You can break bones if you lose consciousness and fall.
What if someone had their memories erased by lightning?
What if, like Gretel Ehrlich, during her second—and more sinister—strike, you had to drag your own heavy legs across a grassy plain? What if, like her, it took you five years to recover?
But as I scan the photographs of strangers’ marred skin, I can’t help thinking that many of the scars are beautiful, like ancient, Old World cartographies. I’m a lightning scar voyeur. A bolt-luster. I’m a story coveter. One photograph shows the torso of a shirtless young man seated on a paisley bedspread. The patterned cotton competes with the tangled shapes of his injury. He’s not flexing his biceps. His struck arm hangs simply, by his side. Over his tawny skin scrawl the intricate pink fronds of a fiddlehead fern as they split into smaller and smaller threadlike tendrils. Another photograph shows a woman in a plain, matronly, ivory bra with the picture cut off at her chin. Her lightning scar is less fernlike. She’s marked with bright, violet Spanish moss that spills from her jaw down her neck to rest just above her breasts. Another man’s scar resembles the ginger-colored rust on an iron gate in my favorite nineteenth-century cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Or maybe it looks like a mossy extension of his long sideburn. One man’s red-welted back looks as if he’d been slashed by a knife. I know the scars aren’t all beautiful. But I still can’t stop staring. There’s a pale, caramel-tinged cow—still alive, still standing in a field—its entire left side charred, its raw, plum-colored wounds outlined in an awful, singed black. The animal looks as if it shouldn’t have survived the attack.
My mother has a nickname for trees that have been carved out by fire or decay toward the bottom of their trunks, creating a concave place where a person has room to stand or crouch. She calls the trees widowmakers. She explained the name’s meaning to me one day as we hiked the gravel trail halfway around Burke Lake, pointing to a hollowed-out sassafras near the shore. Although trees with person-sized slits may seem like the perfect shelter to a hiker caught in a sudden storm, hiding inside a tree trunk makes a person far more likely to be struck by lightning. It’s as if a person becomes a tree, like Ovid’s Daphne transformed into a laurel in the Metamorphoses. It’s as if a hiker becomes as flammable as birch bark or as tall as a white pine. A widowmaker tempts you to wait inside its embrace and then betrays you, through enticing the lightning’s strike. I like that I’m given a word for this. Widowmaker. This nearly-mythic foliage. This votive space for a struck saint. This booby-trapped door that leads straight to Thor’s hand.
I’ve watched the word lightning coyly morph its characteristics as it zigs and zags its sonics across languages. So many shapes! In French it’s the husky, quick-voweled foudre. In Italian it’s the rich, silky fulmine. In Afrikaans it’s the eerie, downward-swerving weerlig. In Swahili it’s the undulant umeme. In Spanish it’s the lavishly elongated relámpago. In German it’s the sibilant blitz. In Finnish it’s the light-house-pulsing salama. In Armenian it’s the deeply glottal kaytsak—my favorite for its translation into English as an alchemical “fiery stone.” Imagine being stoned by fire. Imagine being branded by the sky.
I’ve passed by many widowmakers while hiking, although I’ve never stopped to crouch in one during a storm. The most imposing widowmakers I’ve seen must be the ancient redwoods of Muir Woods, outside of San Francisco. I’ve seen whole groups of them, growing close together, in vaulting stands called “cathedrals” sprouted from the same original tree. I’ve stepped inside widowmakers only during a light mist. I’ve slipped from hollow enclave to enclave, crossing the cathedrals’ soft floors. The old spaces smell mold-sweet and cedary. They swiftly echo.
If I were serious about getting struck by lightning, I’d have hundreds of redwood widowmakers in Muir Woods to choose from. But I have a feeling I’d be among the unlucky ones: the charred cow, the rust-covered cheek, the slashed back like a serial killer’s aftermath. If I could guarantee just two small, safe, pink scars—one on my fingertip and one on my elbow—I would call down the lightning. I would wait for a storm to hit and then crouch in a tree. Even saying so makes me shiver, as if I truly had the power to harness an element. I could find the exact middle of a blue field, the metal-smell of the gathering static. The crabgrass standing up like fine hair. There, I could summon a bolt. Maybe just knowing this—that I can—could itself be enough.