The Taste of Ashes

Sheila Peters

Two unlikely worlds collide in Sheila Peters’s first novel, The Taste of Ashes, a story of redemption and the resilience of the human spirit, even at its most frail and vulnerable.

Isabel Lee’s early life in rural BC was forever changed by a brief but powerful love affair with a young Oblate priest. Now a recovering alcoholic, Isabel struggles to pull the tattered fragments of her life together and repair the damage to her relationship with her estranged daughter.

Once idealistic and hopeful, Father Álvaro Ruiz now has his own demons to confront. Brutally tortured at the hands of the Guatemalan authorities and unable to escape the wounds of his past, Álvaro returns to Canada seeking sanctuary, a broken man with a tenuous grip on his faith in God and humanity.

Isabel’s and Álvaro’s stories slowly weave together and they are eventually faced with their greatest challenge yet: can they carry on in the wake of the damage and bring themselves to forgive? Compelling, disturbing but ultimately hopeful, this is the story of how we find grace in the most unexpected places.

When the radio clicked on at 6:15, Isabel Lee was still half-asleep. Clear skies. Temperatures rising to the mid-twenties. Current temperature, one degree. A danger of frost in low-lying areas. She jolted awake. Throwing off the covers, she pulled a sweater over her nightie, stuck her bare feet into her clogs, and rushed outside to rescue her flowers.

Sunlight touched the peak of the mountain across Railway Avenue, but her house was in shadow. The heavy dew soaking the grass froze her feet and cold air coiled around her legs snaking right up under her nightie as she turned on the tap and unwound the hose. Determined to trick the cold into leaving another few days of life to the frost-tender lobelia, the tubs full of nasturtiums, and the dahlias that would look glorious if they were given a couple more weeks, she sprayed them all. The summer in this small town tucked between three mountain ranges five hundred miles north of Vancouver had held so little heat this year, everything had come so slowly, that each flower was worth fighting for in spite of the chill that had tunnelled its way deep into her bones by the time she went back inside.

She turned up the heat and waited, standing over the hot air vent as the furnace rattled and coughed, forcing warm air up between her feet. They were still lovely feet, she thought, with long toes and perfectly polished red toenails. Her ankles and calves were slender, and the shape revealed as the blue-flowered nightie billowed and subsided showed a flat stomach and breasts still holding their own against gravity. She grimaced as her feet prickled into warmth and scrubbed her fingers through the dark blonde hair that sleep had spiked into a frazzle.

The radio blared upstairs, the only other presence in her small house. The announcer reminded drivers to slow down for the children returning to school and she groaned to think of the store swarming with list-packing mothers and kids already wired from a couple of hours in a classroom. Instead of a day ringing up sales, she longed for a cigarette, a drink, and a man’s warm body. It had been almost three years since she’d given them all up. Three years since she had tried, unsuccessfully, to stop her daughter from packing up and driving away. She was moving, Janna had screamed, to a town where no one knew her. Or, more specifically, where no one knew her mother.

Trudging back up the stairs for a shower, Isabel felt the same helpless anger she always felt when she thought about that day. Every one of her forty-eight years made itself felt in the way her hips ached after spending hours just the day before hunkered down weeding the same flowers she was trying so hard to save. She wondered if she’d ever limber up again.

By the time the early afternoon lull hit the store, Isabel was wishing the morning frost hadn’t tricked her into putting on a long-sleeved cotton sweater and heavy denim skirt. Sun slanted across the checkout counter where she leaned to take the weight off her feet. She sorted through the jumble of security tags, sale price stickers, and the stack of bulletins sent out from head office over the long weekend. The store sweltered under racks of dark fall fashions — burgundy and green velour everywhere. The only summer clothes left were mustard yellow shorts sets in the discount bin, outfits so ugly they’d been marked down to $1.99 and still weren’t moving.

She was thinking of ducking into the washroom to peel off her pantyhose when Lily Thomas, bent almost double by a disintegrating spine, wandered in. Thin grey hair curled out from under a black felt cap, and a once-fine pink wool coat, belted at the waist, drooped below her knees. White ankle socks and black high-top runners completed the ensemble. Squashing an old beaded purse under one arm, she sifted through the shorts sets, held one pair up to the light, shook them out, fingered the tags, and dropped them back into the pile. She drifted toward another sales rack, then doubled back. Rooting around underneath, she pulled out the eyelet lace tank top Isabel had tucked in the bin as treasure for the sharp sighted. Mrs. Thomas had scored, though God only knew who would wear it.

Isabel was on her way over to ask her how best to protect her dahlias from the frost when a bright flock of girls twittered in and scattered among the fake leather tops and tiny skirts. Grade eights, probably, fresh from their first day at the high school, and somebody had a clothing allowance. Before the door had even closed behind the girls, three young men tumbled into the store, laughing at the tag line of a joke. Friends of her boys, they’d filled the house with their unfinished voices as they played hours of video games and munched through a thousand plates of nachos. Whenever they needed wool socks or long underwear and were strapped for the kind of cash the higher-end stores charged, they’d come to see Isabel.

The Taste of Ashes does not feel like a first novel. Its carefully crafted, multi-layered family narrative is complex and lyrical in a way that reveals Peters’s history as a poet and short-story writer”… The Taste of Ashes isn’t just the complicated history of one small town family, it’s a lyrical, richly detailed saga that draws the reader into the complexity of family relationships and ultimately reveals that redemption and healing are always possible. The Taste of Ashes is a novel to savor.

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