Ash came into this world in an Ash tree.
Not literally, of course. Her mama didn't give birth to her while crouching up in a tree. She wasn't a bird. No Ash's mama just left Ash in the crotch of a tree by the ferry station in Tiburon sometime in the middle of the night. Leastwise she'd been well wrapped and hadn't even made a peep until the mule team pulling the morning's milk delivery started making their own ruckus.
That was why Mr. Porter, who ran the ferry station's cafe, came out and heard the fuss she was making. There he was just wanting to get ready for his day and there was Ash wailing her one day head off in the ash tree out front.
Now if Mrs. Olivera, his widowed daughter, with her own baby at her breast had had her way, Ash would have been named Fresno, and they'd have taken her in. But Mr. Porter said, "Neither one of us is naming this little bastard. Some whore leaves a baby out front of my place of business and expects me to take care of it. Not going to happen." So he'd rowed himself and little Ash the short distance across the bay to Angel Island. He'd presented the baby to the Abbess of the Isla de les Angeles Abbey then and there.
Since he was an honest man, Mr. Porter also handed over the yards of fancy red brocade silk that looked to have come across the sea on one of those clipper ships coming back from China. Since he was a really honest man, he also handed over the gold ring that had been tied to the silk with a ribbon. It was a fancy ring with the symbol of a sailing ship like sailor might want to wear if he had the funds, but it was in no way a wedding ring.
Abbess Ines looked at the baby and said, "As all women are my sisters, this girl is my niece and I will raise her as such." Abbess Ines was good as her word. She named the girl Ash, because she'd been found in an ash tree, and she treated her as her own flesh and blood. Although, she was sure to let Ash know from the earliest age the manner of her arrival in this world and to turn her eyes towards God. In the world, Ash's expectations would be limited on account of the manner of coming into it, while God's ledger held only forgiveness for all sins.
Now the nuns at the Abbey weren't required to keep a vow of silence or anything like that, but they were expected to spend their time in silent reflection and prayer as they went to their labors.
Ash learned to be quiet. When she was younger, the price of being too boisterous would be to go out to the windbreak above the apple orchard and cut a switch the size of her Aunt Ines thumb from a willow tree. Her Aunt was not cruel, but she had a stout appreciation of virtue. Now in Ash's head, when she lay on her bed in the dormitory the night after a punishment, she rewrote the balance of what happened. Instead of telling her to go and sin no more, her Aunt embraced her. Instead, her Aunt would wipe away Ash's tears and enfold her in love. But Aunt Ines eyes were too turned towards God for any such foolishness as that.
Still Ash knew that she was loved and that as the wounds healed, this was a sign that she'd been forgiven by God himself. That's why she loved going to confession. For all that she had very little to confess to doing, as living on an island Abby left little opportunity for sin. Still she'd sit in the box and kick her feet and go on for hours to the priest, who'd come to the Abbey for that purpose once a month.
Sometimes she'd go look at the statues of the saints on the walls of the chapel and imagine them forgiving her for the sin of being found in an ash tree. She liked Paul best with his wild eyes. He looked like he'd give her a good thrashing with a willow switch before enfolding her in God's love, which was patient and kind.
There weren't any other children on the island. This was years before the Angel Island, as it came to be called, became a stopping point for immigrants coming from China and other points east.
Now once a month, the sisters would take their sailboat into San Francisco, where they sold the goods they raised on the island, which in turn supported the Abbey.
Ash went with Sister Marie when she sold their goods and watched her manner change. When she was very young, Ash said, "Why do you act that way when you're talking to Mr. Aligheri?"
Sister Marie smiled, "The same reason Mr. Aligheri renames our lemonchello Angel's Breathe when he sells it." She winked at Ash. "Because being a little sweeter gets a better price."
Ash had been small enough to laugh and look at San Francisco in a new way.
Ash loved those trips. San Francisco was a different world. The island was a woman's world, and the sisters may have all been brides of Christ, but he was an absent husband and only sent a priest around once a month for certain necessities of religious life.
San Francisco was full of all sorts of people and garbage and horses and loud noises and things were always happening. Ash would watch those city streets boiling over with activity and it looked nothing like the way the San Francisco looked from the peak at the heart of the island.
After they'd sold their goods, she and the sisters would volunteer at the Saint Nicholas mission in the Barbary Coast before heading home early the next day. She saw vice retching in the streets, and wondered if any of the women selling themselves along the way was her mama. But try as she might, she didn't recognize her own face in anyone she talked to.
Ash wore her gold ring on a string under the high neck of her black dress on those days and wondered if her papa had been a sailor on the seven seas. She asked the sailors at the mission about the ring, but none of them recognized what ship it might be.
Mr. Budd said only, "Best hide that back away girly. There's salts here that'd knife their mama as take what you got dangling on a string.
She'd put her ring away and learned to stop asking the question.
She was still quite young, not yet fourteen, when it so happened that a lot of fancy folks came for a visit to the mission see if they were feeling charitable. But far as Ash could tell, it was mostly to feel better about their own lot in life. But were offered a tour and tea by Father Morales, who ran the mission.
That's how Ash met Baroness Gurun for the first and only time. She was a tall lady and she looked like she'd been beautiful once, but something had gone bitter. That bitter had spread out all over her face and there wasn't a word in five that came out of her mouth that didn't cut a body open like running a hand over a rasp.
Baroness Gurun was putting down her cup of tea while Sister Bridget finished up trotting out that same old story about how they found Ash's bastard self. Sister Bridget liked to tell that story and got more details every time she told it. It was after all the most interesting thing to have happened to anyone on the island.
Ash had heard this exchange so often it didn't hardly bother her anymore. She offered Baroness Gurun a plate of biscuits and asked, "Is it hard to be so far from home?"
Baroness Gurun's brow got all crinkled and said in that high class New York money voice of hers, "Oh, I'm not Europe. My family came over on the Mayflower." She paused to let that sink in. "It's the Baron who came from France to California during the Gold Rush."
"Oh, I know." Baron Gurun was in the newspapers all the time. Baron Gurun had taken his gold money and made himself into a Robber Baron with railroads every which way. She'd even seen him once when he was holding a rally that time he ran for the state legislature. "I meant California's so far away from New York. Do you miss New York?"
Baroness Gurun's expression was about as hungry as any Ash had ever seen at the mission. Baroness Gurun didn't like anything on the young coast and loved everything about the old coast. She missed the society, and history, and under all that, clear as if she'd pulled out a pen and written it all over her face, she missed being the center of her own world instead of just a wife of a fellow more than a little famous for his carryings on. The Baroness felt guilty because she wasn't supposed to be feeling that way, hungry because just because a body wasn't supposed to feel a certain way didn't mean they wouldn't.
Ash looked around the tables at the ladies in their fine dresses that there was no way they could put on themselves. "What you need is something that's just yours. Build your own society. Be a part of something that every person who walks away from will talk about for the rest of their lives." She said it with all the conviction of her fourteen years. She didn't say they were sitting in a place just like that. She thought it was obvious.
Baroness Gurun let out a hiss of a breath. "Oh, Ash." The way she said the sses in Ash's name sounded like steam from a steam engine. "You're very naïve." She sipped her tea. "That's not how it works for a woman outside of your island of Angels."
When tea was over, and they'd been taken on a tour, the fancy folks were pulling out their checkbooks. Baroness Gurun didn't pull hers out. She said, "I don't see the point of this. This money will disappear like a drop in the sea. After all Christ said that the poor will always be with us."
Father Morales bought food and blankets with the donations from those fancy visitors. Ash thought about what the Baroness had said as she ladled soup long after all that money was gone.
Ash never saw the Baroness again. Although, she wrote to her after the Baron's death. She got a letter back from the new Baron thanking her for her sympathy. It was written on one of those new typewriters. She wondered if the signature at the bottom was even the Barons. She saw in the obituaries that the Baroness died six months after the Baron. She hoped some of that bitterness was leached out of her in heaven. But she wasn't quite sure how that could happen.
Time passed. Ash did what happened as a result. She grew older.
The summer she was nineteen, Ash was in the newspapers. It wasn't because she saved a child from a runaway carriage. It wasn't because she saved a puppy from sure death by virtue of uncontrollably falling piano. She was doing what she did one day out of every month when she was in the city. But that day it just so happened that Father Morales had invited a reporter, Mr. Paris, or as he insisted in being called, Jack, to the mission. He was going to do a write up about the work they were doing.
Jack made a sketch of Ash, and insisted on talking about her work there. Ash hardly knew what was going on. She'd never had that much fuss made over her.
She showed Jack the gold ring with its engraving of an old ship. She told him her story in the hopes that her mama or her papa would read of it and come to see her. She very much wanted to ask why she'd been left behind in an ash tree.
Jack asked if he could come out to the island later to write a story about the Abbey. Ash directed her most apologetic smile at Father Morales. Still, it seemed a good opportunity to do her Aunt a good turn. She smiled and said, "Yes, of course, we welcome visitors to the Isla de les Angles. My Aunt's order does not require silence."
She'd dimpled a smile at him and he'd grinned back over his notepad. "This will make great copy."
She didn't see the first picture of her that appeared in the paper with the caption, "The Angel of Angel Island Ministering to the poor." She did see the subsequent article and pictures that appeared after Jack's visit to the island. It was less an article about the Abbey than it was about her, or rather it was an article about an imaginary Angel of Angel island, who thought good and sweet thoughts every hour of the day. Jack came up with all sorts of possible parents for her. She really liked the one about the Russian Prince from old Fort Ross who'd taken up with the famous Opera singer.
Sister Bridget took one look at the article and muttered something about angels and whores, and said a bit louder, "Nothing good can come of this kind of notoriety."
Aunt Ines said, "I have faith that Ash will remember what we've taught her." Her eyes were firmly on God that day. So, her voice had a kind a faint warble as if she were speaking from far away.
Ash hated those pictures. She looked nothing like herself. She looked sweet and kind.
She was not sweet. She was not kind. It was simply that she couldn't afford to be anything else. But under it all, she wasn't like that.
At this point, life on the island became a lot more interesting, as the Abbey started to have a steady stream of young men in city suits and slick ways coming to call on the Angel.
That's when Ash learned that she was beautiful. She heard it every time the Abbey had visitors. She learned that she had hair the color of red gold, and eyes of amber and golden skin and that she had the face of an Angel.
She always wanted to ask what kind of angel they meant, because the angels with four heads, one of them a man's, wasn't much of a compliment. She learned if she said just that in a teasing enough way, she could say what she thought without getting into trouble for it.
The gentleman saying such nonsense usually tried to convince her to go for a private walk in one of the orchards or hike up to the peak, and on the way let him have his way with her, which made her doubt the truth of any of it.
She'd sold enough produce and lemonchello to understand how selling a bill of goods worked.
When she looked at these men with their slicked back hair and waxed moustaches, she could tell that they didn't see her. They thought she was sweet like a lemon pie full of sugar. They didn't want to see she was like a lemon.
Now it wasn't all curdled cream. She enjoyed being beautiful.
She made a game of it. She'd smile at this young man or that one, until they fought over which one she really liked. When Aunt Ines realized what was going on, she was very disappointed in Ash. She said, "I had understood that you were thinking of joining our order, and you would be my sister as well as my niece. It would be just as well if you decided to marry one of these young men, but to toy with them like this is unchristian."
Ash would beg her Aunt's forgiveness and was given sad disappointment in return. She resolved to do better, but after a week of silence, Sunday would come again and she played the same game again.
She'd have thought that after a week or so the city boys would stop coming, but they didn't as the summer wore on. They sailed through the fog that rolled in the Golden Gate to lick Oakland's nose. If Oakland weren't a city and had a nose that was.
Now before we get to the day this all changed, there's another who's history needs to be told.