The Girl Who Talks to Ashes is currently FREE on Kindle Unlimited, but since many folks don’t have a KU membership and therefore can’t take advantage of a free glimpse inside, I’ve decided to post the prologue in its entirety here. Happy reading and have a lovely weekend ahead! Cheers, Rachel
Fifteen-year-old Willow was terrified of her newborn, Lilah, from the very beginning. It wasn’t just the recurrent seizures, which would grip her baby’s tiny little body and contort her wrinkled face, still pale and peeling from the womb. It was the strange things that would happen during those seizures, the strange things that would happen to anything – or anyone – unfortunate enough to be nearby.
She first noticed this peculiarity when Lilah was just a few weeks old and her eyes began to glaze over. Bone-tired and delirious after yet another sleepless night, Willow stifled a sob, bracing herself for what she knew would happen to Lilah next: a disconcerting tic of her right eye, a sudden stiffening of her arms and legs, and a series of spasms that would ripple across her diminutive limbs like shock waves. All of these things occurred, just as the last thirteen episodes Willow had suffered through since Lilah had been brought into the world, delivered in a plastic wading pool on her grandmother’s kitchen floor.
What Willow wasn’t expecting at that moment was for the half-eaten apple resting on her nightstand to crumble apart without provocation or cause, shriveling into a moldy, stinking pile of decay. As Lilah convulsed on her lap, staring straight ahead with wide, dilated pupils that seemed to focus on nothing at all, Willow stared at the maggots wriggling atop the putrid slop in horror, scrubbing the sleep from her eyes as she choked on a cry that had lodged itself against her windpipe. By the time Willow had found her voice, shrill and etched with panic, and her own mother, clad in curlers and a hastily-cinched robe, had come barreling down the stairs, the mound of rotting pulp had once more returned to a plump, shiny apple. While Celeste gripped the banister and tried to catch her breath – her daughter’s blood-curdling screams had woken her from a deep and pleasant sleep – Willow was blustering something about worms and Lilah having yet another fit. But there the child was, resting peacefully in Willow’s arms. With an indignant huff, Celeste snatched the infant from her hysterical daughter, instructing her to drink a mug of limeflower tea and get some sleep at once.
Though Willow prayed – fervent, desperate pleas that she whispered to the ceiling while her daughter slept in the handmade cradle beside her bed – the child’s “peculiarities” didn’t stop there: with every subsequent seizure that week, steaming concoctions of herbs would evaporate, hot poria and wild yam soup would turn sour and black, and fresh bouquets of lavender would shrivel to dust. Though everything returned to its natural state the moment the baby stilled, each episode brought untold terror to Lilah’s young mother, who would cry out for help, only to find that “help” always arrived a moment too late. Having never witnessed Willow’s unsettling claims first-hand, Celeste could only balk at the teenager’s tears. She really had no sympathy for the girl, who had brought this situation upon herself by being rash and foolish; furthermore, she was certain that the hallucinations stemmed from a tainted spirit and Willow’s own negative energy. She would simply have to try harder to overcome those things.
And so, despite the fact that Lilah’s seizures continued and Willow’s hysteria worsened by the day, hospitalization – for either one of them – was simply out of the question. No “doctor” or pharmaceutical drug could cure such ailments better than herbal and spiritual remedies, Willow’s mother continued to insist, each day more emphatically than the last.
Late one night, after changing the baby’s diaper on the bathroom floor, Willow stood up and regarded her tired reflection in the medicine cabinet. Once pretty and full of smiles, she now grimaced at the stranger staring back at her, the stranger with limp, oily hair and purple circles beneath her sunken eyes. The stranger who had left her friends and her former life behind her when she fled to another state to raise a baby that she never wanted in the first place. As she gazed at herself, narrow shoulders slumped beneath the heavy weight of self-pity, she failed to notice the baby beginning to seize on the pink bathroom rug. Therefore, it caught Willow entirely by surprise when the taut, smooth skin of her cheeks abruptly shriveled, clinging to her skull as faint brown spots appeared across the loose, crepe-like skin on her neck. As her long, auburn ponytail blanched to shock-white and her hair began to tumble out in snowy clumps, Willow cried out hoarsely, nearly stumbling over Lilah – whose round, hazel eyes were glazed and far away – as she threw herself away from the splintering mirror.
By the time Celeste burst through the bathroom door, Willow was sobbing on the cold, moldy tile, clutching her youthful cheeks and babbling some nonsense about being an old hag while her poor baby cried from the bathroom sink. Celeste snatched her wailing granddaughter from the basin, feeling her hot temper flaring in her cheeks.
“What is the matter with you?” she hissed, straining to keep her voice low. They’d barely lived in that house for a month, and already Willow’s unmistakable wailing had thrice attracted the attention of neighbors, much to Celeste’s shame and chagrin. To think she had worried it would be the baby’s wails that would tip them off to Lilah’s existence! Every time they came over unannounced, it posed yet another risk of them discovering her daughter’s bastard child. Her lips pursed with contempt as she regarded the hysterical teenager, still curled up on the bathroom floor whimpering.
“Why do you continue to carry on like this? We’ve burnt white sage, rosemary, lavender! I even brought in Shaman Mike to chant for your healing, which you know was no small feat, given his book tour schedule! I’ve given you every sacred herb imaginable, from dandelion root to Japanese kelp – Ow, Lilah, don’t grab Grammy’s hair!” she scolded, setting the infant back down in the sink. “Do you know how much that tiny jar of kelp cost us? How many hours I had to work at the factory to make up for it?”
“M-Mom,” Willow started, pointing at Lilah, who had once more gone rigid.
“Don’t interrupt me, Willow. Frankly, I’m starting to think your constant need for attention—ah, ahh!”
Willow’s bloodshot eyes widened in horror as her mother’s harangue abruptly turned to shrill screams. Celeste had just noticed her right hand, the one that had been slapping the countertop for emphasis, had become withered and gray, its paper-thin flesh rotting away at the knuckles to expose glimpses of bone beneath. She screamed and screamed, and Willow screamed and screamed, and the baby screamed and screamed, and together their screams combined to create a piercing cacophony of terror and confusion. It woke the neighbors’ three miniature pinschers, who howled alongside them from the next house over, mistaking their panicked wails for a friendly “hello!”
It didn’t matter that the skin on Celeste’s hand returned to its plump, creamy complexion just moments later; after that night, she swore she would never touch that baby again, and she never did.
· · ·
The next morning, baby Lilah – swathed in garlands of sage, oregano, and dill – was left in her cradle alongside a bowl of Indian turmeric and pasteurized goat’s milk while her frantic grandmother scoured piles of sacred texts and cookbooks for answers. She directed her findings, several at a time, to a rather flustered Willow, who was running around the little house attempting to implement the various sacraments just so. Along with white sage, lemon-blueberry scented candles burned on the coffee table beside a store-bought Ouija board and the pink iridescent quartz crystal that Shaman Mike had left to assist with negative chi.
As Celeste shifted her attention from her mystical herb pamphlets to the yellow pages, where she was attempting to locate a nearby shaman in Mike’s absence, Willow’s childhood tabby cat sauntered in through the open window, attracted by the bowl of warmed goat’s milk resting a few inches away from the baby. Mangy, nearly-blind, and missing an ear from its numerous neighborhood fights, the old cat jumped in Lilah’s cradle, lapping at the orange-tinted concoction with an entitled air.
Unfortunately, it was at that exact moment that Lilah’s happy gurgles broke off, disrupted by her first seizure of the day. Before Willow could cry “scat!” the poor cat was dead – a fetid, decomposing pile of bones and fur resting on the crumbled remnants of a timeworn fleece blanket. Willow clamped her hands over her open mouth to stifle a scream, her eyes bulging above her fingertips. The gruesome scene lay just inches from the baby, but she didn’t dare go near the child, not while her round eyes stared at nothing and her body was rigid. Celeste stared wordlessly from the kitchen table, letting the phonebook drop from her fingers to the linoleum floor without a second glance.
After a long moment, the baby’s fit passed, and both the cat and the blanket returned to their previous, intact condition. But the animal didn’t move. Moments became minutes, and minutes eventually became hours. By late afternoon, Willow had to accept that her poor Pebbles was gone, his early-morning yowls never to be heard again. Tears burning her eyes, she carefully laid his blanket-wrapped body in an old Sears shoe box and left it under the back porch with a little prayer, as well as several handfuls of his favorite brand of tuna-flavored cat food just beside the box – just in case.
That night, well after the last bedroom light in the neighborhood had been flicked off and the moon had once more sunk below the horizon, Willow and her mother wrapped Lilah in the warmest blankets they could find, pinned a note beneath her chin, and left her on the doorstep of the fire station two towns over.
Their van was found on the side of the freeway the next morning, the key in the ignition and the engine still running. Willow and Celeste had never made it back home that night. Rumors and wild conjectures churned through their small town, whose inhabitants scarcely knew their reclusive neighbors, but no one was able to provide the chief of police any leads. As for the baby, only the traveling shaman knew of her existence, for Celeste had delivered her granddaughter herself, in hopes of hiding her young daughter’s shameful deeds. And so, with no clues to link to their disappearance, and no record of Lilah ever having existed, no one ever found out what had happened to the three of them. After a few years, their names were forgotten altogether.
Time has a way of doing that.