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By Willa Reece
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"A witchy story full of found family, lush nature, and small-town secrets.” —Hester Fox
"A magical, romantic tale about our essential connections to nature and to each other." —Sarah Addison Allen, New York Times bestselling author
Step into a world of hope, fate, and folk magic in this bewitching debut when a young woman travels to a sleepy southern town in the Appalachian Mountains to honor her best friend.
There are secrets that call to Mel, from a salvaged remedy book filled with the magic of simple mountain traditions to the connection she feels to the Ross homestead and the wilderness around it.
With every taste of sweet honey and tart blackberries, the wildwood twines further into Mel’s broken heart. But a threat lingers in the woods—one that may have something to do with Sarah’s untimely death and has now set its sights on Mel.
The wildwood is whispering. It has secrets to reveal—if you're willing to listen . . .
For more from Willa Reece, check out Wildwood Magic.
Twelve-year-old Sarah Ross reached quickly for the fragrant charm beneath her pillow the same way she would have reached for a parachute ripcord if she’d been rudely pushed from a plane cruising at ten thousand feet. It was only an imaginary fall, one that had propelled her awake, as bad dreams do, but her trembling fingers clutched at the familiar shape of the tiny crocheted mouse like a lifeline. The charm her mother had filled with sage and lemon balm was supposed to help Sarah sleep, and it did, usually, but the dream fall had cannoned her awake with stomach-swooping dread, as if the entire world had disappeared beneath her sleeping body.
This time her knuckles didn’t stop hurting even after the bed solidified under her. She wasn’t falling. She was awake. Her soft bedding still smelled like sunshine from its time on the clothesline.
Her hands hurt.
It was only a ghost pain that had haunted her first waking moments since she was a little girl. There was nothing wrong with her fingers, her knuckles, or the palms of her hands. The mouse usually banished the pain by grounding her in the real world.
Not this time.
Sarah didn’t take the charm with her when she sat up. She left it where it lay, hidden, because she was twelve years old and shouldn’t need to clutch a faded pink mouse for comfort. Her heart still pounded. Her stomach doubted the assurance of solid floorboards beneath her bare feet. Sarah walked over to close the window anyway.
Maybe the chilled morning air had woken her.
But sometimes a Ross woman felt things and knew things that couldn’t be explained away by ordinary circumstances.
Predawn light barely lit the sky outside. Sarah strained her ears. There was no whip-poor-will calling in the distance. There were no coyotes laughing their way to their dens for the day or runaway roosters calling triumphantly from hidden bowers far from their barnyard homes.
The wildwood was quieter than it should be.
Unease suddenly woke her completely and diminished the ache in her knuckles. The cabin felt wrong around her, and the wrongness stretched out from where she stood, silent and still, to the Appalachian wilderness that ran for hundreds of miles around her home.
Sarah almost went for her mouse charm again, but then she remembered today was her birthday. There would be apple stack cake and presents and maybe, just maybe, her mother would finally let one of her friends ice Sarah’s earlobes and pop a needle quickly into each one. She could wear the new earrings that were sure to be in one of the brightly colored packages in her mother’s bedroom.
And, still, Sarah’s heart wouldn’t stop beating more quickly than it should. The quiet forest and the dream fall didn’t explain it. The phantom pain in her knuckles was too common to rush her heartbeat. Something was wrong. It was the wrongness that had woken her. Not the cool breeze from the window. Not a bad dream. Not the occasional pain in her fingers on waking that her mother said would probably be explained one day.
Last night when she’d gone to bed she’d opened the window to release a frightened luna moth caught between the screen and the wavy glass panes. The thumping of her heart against her rib cage reminded her of the frantic beat of the luna moth’s wings. Helplessly trying to fly free. She’d released the moth, but there was nothing she could do for the racing heart trapped in her chest.
The floor was cool against her feet, but she didn’t pause to find socks or shoes. She hurried out of her loft bedroom and over the small landing that led to the half-log stairs. They were covered with rag rug treads so her slapping feet fell silently as she slipped down to the cabin’s great room.
All the lights were off, even the one in the bathroom off the hall that led to her mother’s bedroom. Her mother always left that light on in case she had to get up in the night to answer the door. She was a healer, and on the mountain a healer was often woken up in the middle of the night even now, when a modern clinic was only forty-five minutes away.
The unexpected darkness was temporary. The sun would come up soon. There was a hint of pink around the shadowed edges of things.
Sarah went to the kitchen instead of running to wake her mother. She wasn’t a baby, in spite of the fluttering moth in her chest.
She was twelve. She was going to get her ears pierced, and pretty soon she would be helping her mother when it came to helping others. She’d already learned a lot by her mother’s side—the growing, the grinding, the tinctures and tisanes. She was getting too old to be nervous over dreams and premonitions.
The pain in her knuckles was gone. And its meaning could wait.
The refrigerator hummed a reassuring sound as she opened its door. She reached for the orange juice her mother always kept in a carafe on the top shelf. The familiar sweet tang soothed her. At least, that was what she told herself until she put the juice back and closed the door. It had been the light that soothed her. When the door snapped shut and the refrigerator light went out, she was left in the strange darkness once more, and no thoughts of sunrise or cake stopped her from finally hurrying to her mother’s room.
The dark didn’t matter. She knew every familiar step down the hall. She’d lived her whole life in the cozy cabin her great-grandmother had built. Just as her mother and her grandmother had.
Sarah stood in the bedroom doorway for a long time when she saw her mother wasn’t in bed. The fall was there again in her stomach and, oddly, in the back of her throat like a choked-off scream. She reached for the doorframe and held it with white-knuckled fingers that were whole and strong and uninjured. Nightmares weren’t real. Melody Ross must have risen early to sweep the front porch or grind herbs in the stump that held the stone mortar bowl generations of Ross women had used.
But even hearing in her mind the sound of the oaken pestle, smoothed from the friction and the oil from so many hands, grinding against the mortar didn’t convince her.
Because she was a Ross, and Ross women knew that premonitions were as real as the scatter of paper on her mother’s bedroom floor.
Sarah let go of the doorframe and rushed forward. She fell to her knees in the pile of paper, but even the rustles as she gathered them up to her chest hardly allowed her to accept the reality of their desecration. Something her mother never would have allowed if she were okay.
Darkness outside had given way to a washed-out gray.
The pages had been ripped from the Ross family remedy book that normally sat on her mother’s bedside table. They were worn and stained from years of use. The familiar scripts and scrawls of all the Ross women who had come before her had been carefully protected and preserved.
The wrongness swallowed Sarah. The feeling of falling blossomed out from her stomach to take her whole body down into black despair. And still, she gathered up the pages before she struggled, wobbly, to her feet. Every last one.
With the growing light, she could see what she’d missed before.
More pages led down the hall and into the sitting area. And still more led out the open front door. The moth of her heart had risen up into her throat to lodge there so solidly she could hardly draw breath. She ran forward, gathering up the pages because she knew it was what her mother would want her to do.
The book had been a part of her life since she was a baby. She was a Ross. And by the book she would heal and help, bind and brew, nurture and sow the seeds of tomorrow. Hot tears ran down her chilled cheeks. Mountain mornings were cold. Her thin nightgown didn’t provide enough warmth. But she didn’t go back for a robe. She shivered, cried, and gathered up page after page as her feet became wet and icy in the dew.
She didn’t leave any of the pages in the damp grass, even the ones that were sticky with blood. She gathered those too as gasps of despair made it past the moth in her throat and her stiff, cold lips.
The pages led her down a path into the forest. She didn’t hesitate even though the woods were still and dark around her. She knew these wildwood shadows. She’d been taught every plant, every root, every tree and every vine since before she could walk and talk. But the wrongness had preceded her here. The morning breeze in the leaves wasn’t a welcome sound, because another joined it—a rhythmic creaking that made her clutch the rescued pages to her chest.
Cree-cree, cree-cree. An unnatural sound in a place that should be wholly natural.
Sarah came to the end of the path that led from the backyard to the garden, and unlike every time she’d come to the clearing before, she paused in dread. The creaking was louder. It roared in her ears, drowning out the sound of her pounding heart and the trickle of the mountain stream that usually gurgled a welcome to her at this point.
The cree-cree was ominous. Her mind tried to identify it and shy away from it at the same time.
But what if some pages had fallen into the water?
Panic pushed her forward.
She had to save the pages that had been ripped from the book. It was the only logic she could grab in a morning that defied normalcy.
The sudden revelation of her mother’s body hanging in a black locust tree stopped her again. All logic fled. All reason escaped her. The rope around her mother’s neck strained and rubbed on the crooked branch that held the other end—cree, cree, cree. Sarah’s arms went limp and all the pages she’d gathered fell like crimson-speckled leaves to the ground. Some did fall into the stream then. They were the lucky ones, washed away on rivulets and ripples while Sarah stood frozen, inside and out, staring at her mother’s body.
Finally, she released the moth that had been stuck in her throat on a wavering scream. Her cry broke the silence that had gripped the mountain. The stillness also broke, as sleepy crows were startled up from the roosts they had claimed around the gruesome scene. Sarah ran to her mother’s blue-tinged pendulum feet. To help her. To protect her. Although it was obviously too late.
There was blood on her mother’s nightgown, black splashes of dried blood, stark against the pale pink cotton. Her mother was always clean and neat, strong and prepared, full of energy and delight. Someone had hurt her. Someone had dragged her from the house, leaving a trail of blood-stained pages in their wake.
Sarah wasn’t ready. Twelve years of apprenticeship wasn’t enough. She needed more than charms and remedies. She needed more than the wildwood garden. The moth was gone. Only groans remained. Sharp and ugly, they parted her lips with jagged wings that cut like glass. Her mother was gone too. There was nothing left but a pitiful shell of the wisewoman Melody Ross had been. Her eyes were glassy and empty. Her mouth would never smile again. Her dark curls were tousled and damp and lifeless where once they had gleamed in the sun.
It had taken Sarah too long to make it to the garden. She must have heard a noise. She must have sensed the terror. It had woken her, but she’d hesitated over her mouse and the dark house. She’d tried so hard to make everything okay with juice and birthday wishes. She was a Ross, and nothing was ever as simple as cake and earrings.
A howl of anger and fear met the sun as it broke over the horizon. Nothing as sweet as a crochet charm would ever soothe her again. Sarah fell to her knees at the base of her mother’s locust tree, shocked at the sound she’d made. It would be a long, long time before she was capable of making another.
The ashes sat exactly as I’d left them. The stainless steel urn hadn’t tipped over as I slept to spill Sarah and her horrible memories onto the floor. Grim dust hadn’t risen up to haunt my usual faceless dreams with nightmare precision, sharp and detailed. The hit-and-run accident that killed my best friend had left me with nothing but a mild concussion… and Sarah’s ashes.
It had been a month since I’d picked up her remains.
No one else had claimed her.
The hollow chill of that responsibility made me into a shell of a woman through the days and far too receptive to the gnaw of terrible thoughts at night.
I was the one Sarah Ross had turned to after her mother was murdered and I hadn’t lived up to the task. I hadn’t kept her safe. I hadn’t kept her at all. Just as I hadn’t kept anything in all of my twenty-three years… except Sarah’s memories.
I had held her hand when we’d first met, and through a succession of midnight confessions I listened as she’d whispered about the morning she’d found her mother.
She’d been so small.
I’d been awkward, a giant beside her petite frame. She’d been placed in the same foster home as me and they’d had only one bedroom for us to share. Her size had fooled me for only a few seconds. She was the older one. By a whole year. But her age hadn’t stopped me from knowing instantly she needed a protector. Something about the bruises under her eyes and the sickly pallor beneath her fading tan skin. Her lips had been dried and cracked. After hours of tears, the salt from her sadness had leached the moisture from her mouth.
I brought her a glass of water and sat on the floor beside her bed. She’d taken a few sips, enough to moisten a parched throat, and then she started talking. I’d taken her hand and held on for dear life.
Until she died, I hadn’t known I’d memorized every word she’d said.
The nightmare inspired by her raspy whispers came every night after the accident. It always jolted me awake at the same moment and sent me wandering for reassurance. Every night I found the urn. Confirmation there would be no comfort.
The harsh light from the ceiling fixture caused a glint on its surface almost like glass. In it, my reflection was distorted. The strange, softened face of a woman I didn’t recognize caused me to back away and close the door.
The second bedroom of the Richmond apartment I soon wouldn’t be able to afford on my own had become a tomb.
On the way to the bathroom for some pain medication, I checked my phone. No notifications. There was nothing left of Sarah there. No messages. No texts. I’d deleted them all and there would never be more. Why hadn’t I saved them? Because the evidence that we’d enjoyed a normal life for a while was more than I could bear.
Besides, my heart was as empty as the screen.
I laid the phone on the hall table and focused on the throbbing at my temples and in various other battered and bruised parts of my body. It was time for another dose. The tiny white pills were probably as responsible for my lucid dreams as anything else, but I couldn’t sleep without them and the night was only half over.
Sarah would have brewed some valerian tea. Over the years, I’d learned to like the slightly minty, slightly bitter concoction she remembered from a family recipe.
Sarah had never fully recovered from her mom’s murder. She’d stayed pale, surrounded by an aura of fragility only I was allowed to penetrate. I was tall, strong and walled off from the world. Only Sarah managed to penetrate that. But we’d managed to find “okay” together. For a while.
Now, there was a hole in that wall where Sarah used to be and the nightmares slipped through it to freeze my soul. I’d made a promise to Sarah. To take her back home when she died.
It was one I intended to keep. Eventually. I wouldn’t let the last thing between us become a lie. My body didn’t try to fight the effects of the pill when I lay back down. It was too tired and too sore. Truth was, even my mind was quick to welcome the embrace of hazy unconsciousness. Nightmares were the only place I was sure to see Sarah again. Fear wouldn’t stop me from going to her. It never had.
It wasn’t far from Richmond to Morgan’s Gap, Virginia. But distance between communities isn’t really measured in miles. There was no Global Positioning System that could have prepared me for the world I discovered at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. One of those maps a reader finds in fantasy novels would have been more fitting than the slightly robotic voice that directed me to a land of morning mists and deep forest shadows so far removed from crazy commutes and cappuccinos. It was late spring and I drove from dull cement and asphalt into myriad shades of green that dazzled my eyes.
When I finally arrived in Sarah’s hometown and pulled into a parking space on the street, the sunrise was so deeply pink on the horizon it seemed the perfect surreal light for an alien landscape. The GPS informed me the nearest familiar coffee chain was forty-five minutes away—back the way I’d come. I was lucky the navigation system worked at all. My cell phone had only a few bars of signal. I sat in the rental car in a sort of stunned, uncaffeinated silence while the pink sunrise turned into an orange-tinted morning. I was a barista. I’d grown too accustomed to easy access. Some part of my brain was awake enough to translate the nearest restaurant’s name into visions of heavy white porcelain cups filled with plain black liquid. The idea came from a movie scene, not from any real experience I’d had, but my need for stimulant urged me out of the car. It was more than the lack of caffeine or missing the familiar morning ritual of obtaining it that had me on edge.
The ashes were in the backseat. I’d put the urn in one of Sarah’s storage boxes. The kind with the old-fashioned botanical prints she’d always favored. This one was covered in roses. Big cabbage roses the size of saucers. Would the pretty box entice a thief to break in and steal what would turn out to be a horrible surprise? My empty stomach plummeted at the thought and I quickly shrugged out of my jean jacket and laid it carefully over the box.
Truth: Nothing in life prepares you to handle cremated remains. Everything you do feels disrespectful. For the first time, I thought maybe I understood some of the traditions surrounding death. I didn’t have traditions. I was adrift. Grief doesn’t pair well with inexperience and awkwardness.
I was dressed in my usual camouflage—black skinny jeans, black high-top sneakers, a logo T-shirt from a defunct bar and the faded jacket I’d discarded. Only here my city camouflage achieved the opposite effect. I felt exposed on the sidewalk. Too dark, inside and out. I was doing what I’d promised to do, but it felt like I’d brought Sarah to foreign soil. The strange sunrise didn’t help to negate the horror in my dreams.
Somewhere not too far from this sunny street, there was a black locust tree where a body had been found, so maybe I wasn’t too dark for this place after all.
I placed my hand on the top of my jacket to make another promise to Sarah. This one was wordless and more about steadying my nerve. I’m here. I’ll see this through. Then I hurriedly backed up to slam the car door shut.
Sarah was gone. I’d promised to bring her home. Those were two absolutes I couldn’t change. Besides, hiding in my apartment had never been an option.
I hadn’t hidden since I was five. There’d been a closet and an abusive foster mother. There’d also been a toy clown that hadn’t saved me any more than hiding had. I’d huddled for all I was worth with the pitiful little clown. For hours, I’d ignored my bladder as it became painfully full and the cramps in my legs as they’d stayed curled up under me too long in the tiny space. When she finally found me, she’d ripped the clown from my arms. She’d torn the stuffing from it. The white fluff had fallen onto my upturned, tearstained face like snow. It had clung to my lashes and stuck to my lips and I’d never forgotten the stale cotton taste. Once the clown was destroyed, she’d wrenched me to my feet onto stiff, numb legs that would barely hold me.
They didn’t stay numb for long when the beating began.
I’d never hidden again. I’d faced and dealt with whatever punches came my way. And once Sarah came into my life I’d faced a few for her too.
I walked into the diner looking for a fight. I wanted to hit back at the universe the same way I’d hit Jason Mews in middle school. All I found was the heavy aroma of bacon and a waitress frenzied by a “crowd” of three occupied booths and one guy on a stool at the counter. I walked past him and settled at the last booth with my back to the wall and my face toward the door. I played with the sugar dispenser while I waited for the lone server to see me. The click, click, click of the sliding metal lid was soothing, until I noticed the dispenser reflected my face back at me in the same distorted way the urn had done the night before.
Who was I now that Sarah was gone? I’d been eleven when we’d met and, by necessity, wholly focused on making it through each day. My intense self-preservation had expanded immediately to encompass the tiny girl who would become my world.
“We have fresh rhubarb pie this morning if you’re interested,” the waitress said. She rushed up to my booth carrying the scent of coffee and bacon with her. I had to admit it was an appealing perfume. The bacon made up for the lack of imported bean scent that normally permeated my hair and skin. My stomach growled even though I had no idea what “rhubarb” could be. The rest of the menu was above the counter on a chalkboard that had seen better days. Someone had tried to offset its dilapidation with jaunty smiley face emojis. They hurt me the same way the stuff I’d deleted from my phone had hurt me. Too happy, too ordinary in a life turned empty and cold. Again. Loss was such a simple way to describe the hollow I’d become.
“Coffee and toast,” I said. “Please.” The last was added as an afterthought when my first words had come out curt and clipped and totally out of place compared to the chalk emojis. I was definitely not going to take my edginess out on a server just doing her job. Nerves, lack of sleep, grief and fear were no excuse. None of those things should be allowed to negate the empathy I’d developed on the other side of the counter.
“Okay. But I’m going to bring you some of my blackberry preserves because you look like you need something sweet,” the waitress said. She didn’t have a name tag. She was wearing faded black jeans and a T-shirt with the diner’s logo on the front. The mascot on her chest was a pig in a chef’s hat. The pig had a huge smile on its face I couldn’t quite reconcile with the scent of bacon in the air. She wasn’t being snarky. A quick glance from the pig’s grin up to her face found a more relaxed and natural smile there.
She was being kind. My body responded by flooding my eyes with hot moisture.
The waitress didn’t wait for agreement. She hurried away and I breathed a sigh of relief because every interaction I’d had since the accident felt like walking on shattered glass. Her rush allowed me to widen my eyes so the tears would dry before they could fall.
There were harder things I would have to face in Morgan’s Gap than a server’s kindness. I had to say goodbye to Sarah. I had to endure the scene of my nightmares to do it. And I had to decide where to go from here.
I was on the second cup of coffee so acidic a third might dissolve my esophagus, downing each gulp like a bitter medicine I had to endure, when the door opened. A woman entered to greetings from the rest of the customers. Calls of “Granny” met her from everyone in the place and for a crazy second I wondered if they were all related.
The lone guy at the counter disrupted that chain of thought. He stood to face the older woman and nodded at her as he also said “Granny” with a curtness that suggested she was not his grandmother. And yet, he didn’t get out his wallet to pay. He hadn’t risen to leave. He moved the stools beside him closer to the counter to get them out of her way. Then he stood as if at attention while Granny passed by. It seemed a gesture of respect, but one strangely tinged with wariness. His back was straight. His shoulders stiff. His jaw tight. He didn’t speak again, but he watched until she had walked all the way to my booth.
As the woman walked, my attention met the lone guy’s gaze over the top of her head. Only for a second. I looked away quickly and he sat back down, but not before I had seen that the intensity of his dark green eyes didn’t match the casual ruggedness of the rest of his appearance. His fall catalog clothing suggested simple outdoor pursuits. His boots were worn. His hair thick and tousled. But the weight of his stare seemed complicated. Why did he seem wary of a little old woman? And why, in spite of his wariness, did I find his old-fashioned deference to her charming? I was too jaded for chivalry to make an impact. But, as with the waitress, genuine consideration was another thing altogether.
I’ve made coffee for all kinds of early morning patrons—from politicians to construction workers. The guy at the counter had more on his mind than hiking. I was sure of it. His caution and the respect he’d shown her in spite of it made me look closer and harder at the woman than I initially had.
Granny—whoever’s grandmother she might be—arrived at my booth as if it had been her intended destination when she got out of bed that morning. She hadn’t even paused when the man stood. And, unlike me, she hadn’t seemed to be affected by his eyes, his courtesy or the certainty he had more on his mind than the fried eggs on his plate.
In a Richmond coffee shop you’re more likely to hear a grandmother referred to as Louise or Beverly. Maybe NeeNee or Nan. But the instant I met this woman’s eyes I couldn’t imagine her being called anything else
“Coffee. Should have known. Damnable stuff. Always interferes. Never drink it unless you need to counteract… Oh well, Sarah wouldn’t have remembered everything, would she? Bless her and you,” the old woman said. “I was a friend to her mother and her grandmother before that. Even knew Great-Granny Ross. Not that she was exactly friendly with anyone. Did my best for you girls. Wasn’t good enough. But here you are and that’s what’s meant to be.”
- "A feast for the senses. Wildwood Whispers is everything I love in a book and I fell under its spell. Willa Reece has written a magical, romantic tale about our essential connections to nature and to each other."—Sarah Addison Allen, New York Times bestselling author
- "Willa Reece has perfectly infused magic, suspense, and a love of nature deep into the pages of this novel. Ultimately filled with hope, love, and the power of growth and resilience, Wildwood Whispers is a thought-provoking, memorable debut."—Heather Webber, USA Today bestselling author of Midnight at the Blackbird Café
- “Dark, tender, and thought-provoking, Wildwood Whispers is a beautifully woven tale of fantasy, feminism, and mystery set in rural Appalachia.”—Constance Sayers, author of A Witch in Time
- "The Appalachian Mountains are alive with magic in this folksy, feminist contemporary fantasy...Mel’s story is full of human compassion and animal wisdom that will charm readers. This works both as a contemporary fairy tale and a slow-burning romance—and fans of both genres will appreciate this walk through the wild woods."—Publishers Weekly
"A lovely tale of sisterly love, the power of inheritance, and the many magics of the natural world. Readers will love Reece’s wonderful wisewomen and cheer for the abandoned baby who grows up to find her true home. A deeply satisfying read!"—Louisa Morgan, author of The Age of Witches
- "I loved everything about Wildwood Whispers. Reece’s poignant writing style truly captured the vivid setting of small-town Appalachia. Readers craving a witchy story full of found family, lush nature, and small-town secrets will find it utterly enchanting.” —Hester Fox, author of The Witch of Willow Hall
- “A wonderful heartfelt novel full of intuitive nature-based magic, wise women, and found family.”—Luanne G. Smith, author of The Vine Witch
- "Willa Reece's Wildwood Whispers will cast a spell on its readers. Rich with imagination and rooting itself in the tendrils of rural Appalachia, the story will pull you in and never let go. A glorious read.”—Lydia Kang, author of Opium and Absinthe
- "A beautifully-written debut spun from love, suspense, and a deep connection with nature that simply entrances. Wildwood Whispers is an unforgettable tale.”—Tish Thawer, author of The Witches of BlackBrook
- "A sweet tale of self-discovery, but it’s also a story of the way women and marginalized communities have always been underestimated by those with power."—Culturess
- On Sale
- Feb 1, 2022
- Page Count
- 400 pages