“Love, which quickly arrests the gentle heart,
Seized him with my beautiful form
That was taken from me, in a manner which still grieves me.
Love, which pardons no beloved from loving,
took me so strongly with delight in him
That, as you see, it still abandons me not…”
-Dante’s Inferno, Canto 5
by Abbey Sullivan
Bailey Brooks was born with strawberry blond hair. Jack knew as much from the lone colored baby photo his mother kept at her bedside, the photo he used to secretly prod at in wonder because, somehow, Bailey looked even smaller then than he did now. But Brooks didn’t require the pictorial evidence; his imagination and dedication to Bailey Brooks’ physical makeup was valiant and constant. It had been for years.
The first memory Jack really had of this hair color, however, was a warm 1960-something July spent in a lush sunflower field in upstate New York. The last trip Jack could recall taking, Bailey had found enough of a reprieve from his chronic fever (which they’d lovingly dubbed the “pink-ring sweats” after the rash that subsequently dotted Bailey’s arms) for them to visit an uncle’s farm. They spent the mornings prancing in the fields, afternoons guzzling homemade lemonade, the evenings cupping lightning bugs in their palms, the nights underneath an attic roof whose shingles were aged enough for blips of starlight to leak through.
That Monday night of the trip, when Amy Brooks fretted over Bailey’s asthma acting up in the humidity, he ran away into the fields, embarrassed about how he’d grown to perceive himself as: an inconvenience. Jack was tasked with finding him, ensuring the Brooks’ family that’d he’d be alright. But the sunflower crop was massive, tall, and suffocating. Eleven minutes into the search Jack was losing track of his steps. He took a firm tumble on a dismembered stalk, scraped his knee in the dirt, and felt a twinge of anguish spark tight in his throat. Jack squatted atop the freezing mud, despondent.
It must have been the commotion of his spill amid the flowers that alerted the object of his search. While he picked out stray sunflower seeds from the new wound, he heard a distinct sniffling. The barely ten-year-old frame of Bailey emerged from the stalks, which now acquired the likeness of thick, strait shadows pointing like needles in reverence to the sky. He rubbed his nose pitifully on his sleeve.
Despite the spotty starlight, despite the damp wind and the absence of daytime warmth, Jack could still see the golden streaks on Bailey’s head. They glowed like the lightning bugs they’d been barred from capturing that day, like the honey Amy Brooks kept in jars for special occasions, like the daffodils and daisies girls wore to Sunday Church in their hair.
Bailey was wheezing in between his hiccoughs and sobs, and Jack could see those distinctive pink rings around the crooked collar of his shirt. He was sick, but Jack’s ankle was twisted, and scarlet was dribbled down his leg, so Bailey took up the job. He interlocked their fingers and traced the foot-trampled stems back to Jack’s makeshift entrance far easier than the latter had managed, head bobbing up and down all uneven-like.
Feeling a summer lethargy overtaking him, combined with relief at knowing he’d done Amy Brooks proud and that his nightmarish visions of Bailey’s stationary figure entwined with stalks and petals and seeds could be cast aside, Jack stared blankly at that sunny scalp. He watched it slip and slide and turn and shake with every stride. Consistently bright, a beacon, he’d never realized so fully the iridescence Bailey had been gifted.
He deserved it. When so much of his life was bleak by default, dreary via some sense of cosmic and diseased irony, he deserved the effulgent shade. And at least that way Jack would never lose sight of him, couldn’t even if he’d tried. Bailey guided him out of the field within seven minutes and collapsed into his mother’s arms, panting through broken lungs. They cut their trip short by half a day wrapped in the delusion that the air back home would treat him any better.