Kage Baker was a redhead.
She had all the stereotypical (sometimes mythical) attributes of the classic redhead – even the fiery temper, though it was balanced and often camouflaged by her equally intense shyness. Her passion was channeled into her art, and into both furies and exhilarations seen only by her close family. Her skin was pale as paper and never, ever, ever tanned; she was madly freckled, from a childhood in the California sun before she discovered broad-brimmed hats and sun-screen.
Her hair wasn’t the frizzy orange curls so often pictured as “redhead”: it was not only a darker red, but more shades of it. Some strands weren’t even colours usually seen on human beings – maroon. Burgundy. Gold – not blonde, an almost metallic gold. Salt-white, even as a small child. The overall effect was one of a bright bronze, with a lot of copper in the alloy … and it was photoreceptive, too. In winter it dulled and darkened, but a weekend out in the Spring sun and it would be blazing like gold-backed mosaic glass.
It grew in big, soft curls when she was a baby. Her mother kept it short as long as Kage lived at home, because it was a major project to wash and brush; it was as thick and dense as copper wire. Kage tended to keep it brushed forward in what would have been bangs if it had been less thick – it formed a sort of quiff in front, and ended up looking like the old Irish glibbe style, which amused her no end.
When she turned 18, got her ears pierced and left home, Kage swore to never cut her hair again. Nor did she, until her brain surgery in her last year; aside from rare trims, she let it grow. It was waist-length in a year. She habitually had to flip it out of the way when she sat down, or she sat on it and half-hanged herself. The parrot used it as his personal abseil rope and playtime swing. Brushed out, it was 3 feet wider than she was. Sister Anne kept that bright braid, in memorium.
A true redhead, all Kage’s hair was red. It made her brows almost invisible. But when the sunlight hit her face, her eyelashes would glow red-gold. It made her eyes even more remarkable, because that was her one departure from classic redhead colouring. Her eyes were black. In strong light, they would show as a dark hazel – sometimes greenish, more often the same unique bronze as her hair; but usually, as black as her Indian father’s.
All her life, Kage was unusually sensitive to some kinds of pain. She was a pretty stoic person, ordinarily; but facial pains, cold temperatures and insect bites undid her. Painkillers didn’t work as well, or as often, or as long. Kage was ashamed of that, seeing it as a weakness or even some kind of hypochondriacal syndrome: but it’s actually accurate for a redhead. They’re wired differently from the rest of us:
“As it turns out, both of those are linked to a wider, far more complex gene than previously imagined. It’s not that redheads feel pain more – in fact, they feel a different kind of pain entirely. Redheads, for example, are more susceptible to toothaches and painfully cold temperatures- but they are entirely capable of withstanding more stinging and pressure pain than the average blonde or brunette. Additionally, in an incredible coincidence, they are better able to withstand the ‘fiery’ pain from capsaicin- AKA spicy foods.”
Kage was actually allergic to oxycodone blends: which made things very hard for both of us in her final illness. I learned to argue with medical personnel about whether or not to risk opiates on someone with terminal cancer. They really seemed sure Kage would end up addicted …. I wish with all my heart she had had the time to try. But once her oncologist told us she was terminal, she had barely a week of morphine before she died.
At least the morphine worked on the pain.
There is, however, no morphine for memory. And, as I wheeze and drip my cranky way through the end of a winter-long respiratory infection, this has been much on my mind. I am depressed. I am mean. I am sick of being sick, sick of coughing, sick of the universality of phlegm. I’m sick of the taste of throat lozenges – why does no one make any that taste like pepperoni? Or garlic shrimp? I have verified, however, that a couple of ounces of solid chocolate will stop a nagging cough – or at least make one pay less attention to it. Whiskey has the same super-distraction effect, at least until it turns traitor and joins up with my headaches …
The only escape I have found this last bit has been reading. That’s a palliative that goes as far back as age 7, when I first learned to read. But I am, slowly, getting better. The elderberry extract is finally making inroads on the dripping (thank you, Kimberly!) and I have begun to dream of writing again. I woke up this morning and could see the next page of Edges and Islands written on my pillow: in Kage’s ghastly cursive, which I can at least decipher. The next line will begin: “Ooh, look at her little neocortex!”
After all, ordinary painkillers work better on me. I need to use the gift of fate, and earn that relief.