Through A Prism

Kage Baker was a natural analyst. She subjected the world to some kind of personal cladistics in her head, and re-assigned its parts into new and more detailed relationships. She was a human prism, breaking white light into its components.

She was one of those people who takes things apart to see how they work – and actually gets them back together with no parts left over. Although for some years in her 20′s she kept a big brass alarm clock in 4 pieces – one large, 3 very small – on her desk, to remind herself how important it was to get all the pieces back in … the clock worked, though, albeit it gained or lost time on some mysterious rhythm I could never deduce. And it made a weird noise when you wound it …

Being a woman of her hands, Kage often took things apart. More often, she put broken things back together. She was a kitchen alchemist, analyzing tastes or scents or colours on the kitchen table and mixing them up – like Love Potion No. 9 – right there in the sink. She had an amazing palette, and could (and did) break down recipes from the flavours, including “secret” ingredients.

Many of her experiments concerned making colours, as that was one of the things that literally fed her soul. I think she enjoyed some sort of kinesthesia, where colours created tactile sensations; looking at the world was like walking through a constant bead curtain for her, flowing and tapping over her skin. Stained glass could make her dizzy, and the application of water colours was a sensual exercise. She did all her paintings in ink and water colour, and was always experimenting with new and different washes.

Two of her favourites were based on Higgins Payne’s Grey ink – both the waterproof and the non. One day she left an empty bottle of each out on the roof beside her tower, and some months later they eventually filled up with rain water. The waterproof dregs yielded a warm, prismatic wash  that bled out at the edges in  pale oranges and blues; the other one produced cooler colours, green and lavender. Brushed on wet paper, both made the most interesting storm clouds ever.

She loved Windsor Newton inks, but she collected them as much for the labels as the colours. They come in wonderful pyramidal bottles with marvelous illustrations on them, like exotic chocolates or painted tiles. Mind you, they are good inks – although the carmine tends to clot a bit, and smells dreadfully of cochineal beetles. But the beautiful little pictures on the bottles themselves were what enchanted her.

She kept her inks and paint boxes in a wooden ammunition crate, in separate whiskey tins – you know, those hinged tin boxes with Bonnie Prince Charlie looking uncharacteristically competent on them? Or a stag staring out, suggesting that he expects to live a lot longer if you’ll just drink what’s in the bottle. Kage was not overfond of whiskey (except as an accompaniment to the Amazing Jacobs Brownies, which I’ll tell you about some day) but I am – when people bought me really good whiskey in commemorative tins, she kept them and filled them with ink bottles.

I have them all, in storage. Someday I may have time to write some letters in Squirrel Brown or Emerald Green. When I’ve saved the French Navy and sent the Ladies home to the vicinity of Whitehall.

When this year is over, and I can break down the bleak white winter light of my mourning into brilliant colour, through the prism of Kage’s memory.

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About Kathleen Bartholomew

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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