About the Author

Audrey J. Whitson

Audrey Whitson's short fiction has appeared in Alberta Views, the Canadian Journal of Prairie Literature, Confluence, FreeFall, andRoom Magazine. Her first book, Teaching Places (Wilfred Laurier University Press 2003), a memoir about how the land teaches, was shortlisted for three awards. Her poetry and essays have been published in many magazines and anthologies and have won awards. Audrey grew up on a farm in northern Alberta and has worked as a social worker, consulting and teaching theologian, editor and project manager. In the 1980s she spent almost five years in the San Francisco Bay Area, working with Mexican migrant workers and Central American refugees as well as studying feminist and liberation theology at the Graduate Theological Union (and Franciscan School of Theology) at Berkeley.

Books by this Author
The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning
Excerpt

Chapter 1

ANNIE GALLAGHER

You can smell the rain on the wind, a right smell for witching. The aspen that survived have taken on a tawny-yellow cast, the way they colour just before the limbs awaken. The willow seem the stronger, most seem to have resisted the drought. Deeper roots maybe. The black poplar, nothing but grey weathered sticks punctuating the pale green understory. You can see it in the shelter belts, the thinning this year, the trees that just didn't make it.

There is no water to witch anymore. Unworkable, the cost of digging, the pumping, all that electricity when I have to tell them two hundred, three hundred, five hundred feet deep. They shake their heads. It isn't magic what I do; I can't conjure it. I can only find it.

And now this news of the Bishop. He's coming to close the church. But more than that, he's coming.

This Thursday morning, I have Bob stop the truck just short of his yard. For a new well, I almost always choose a branch from a living tree. A green willow is best, a bit of water still in its body. It has to be green and it has to have give. That's how it finds the stream. And I always start before sunrise.

We set up in the pasture behind the old corral. The slope is better than in front. Higher ground. Less likelihood of groundwater contamination at spring run-off. I begin to pace, like a monk walking his cloister, straight lines back and forth, head bent, arms outstretched, ears open. A choir monk listening for the cantor. My breviary, the divining rod. Nana called it a goddess branch after the Cornish. Palms down, both forks of the wand gripped, one in each hand, I try to feel the water drawing down from the branch, the crook in my hands speaking to the crook in my legs, to the tingling in my feet. The power in me, the power in the wand: intermittent. The feeling of the current is faint in me. Even at my fullest powers, I have to strain to hear it.

I make a widening circle. Not a vibration. A small meadow vole is watching too, worried for its place in the grass. I am careful to watch for and walk around its nest. A hundred paces on I stop and sit. Sometimes that works best for a while. Cross my legs on the earth and empty my mind, just listen for the pace, the rush of water, a faint layer beneath, muffled there, from so high above the surface.

Bob taps me on the shoulder, interrupts my reverie. "Are you sure about that sky?"

I rise again and twenty feet across the pasture, the willow branch jumps in my hands. I mark the spot, have flags ready for the purpose fashioned from old nails and strips of cloth.

I murmur sometimes when I witch. The farmers say I chant. I often close my eyes. There are usually no words, but an intention and a chord that focuses the mind, then a straining to hear the steady hum of the unseen water, the songs calling from beneath. I sway, I hang on and follow where the current takes me.

Yet today, I summon all my powers of concentration, all the spirits I can muster: the dead, the living, saint and animal. I call on them all. "Nana. Papa. Maman." Their names anchoring me; finding an echo in my bones; the electricity in my hands.

The wand wavers. I hold it close to my pelvis, try to stop the shaking in my hands. Then the dream I've had for days breaks in, a harsh dissonance: my young self wakes reaching for breath. Arms crossed over chest, the strait jacket pulled tight behind me. So tight, I cannot move. A young Bishop Leo, a priest then, standing over me; his words stripping me, harsher than any indignity he might have performed. Inside the strait jacket in my dream, my hands won't stop shaking. The rod pulls down hard, starts to shiver; my hands sweat.

"I thirst," I say to no one in particular.

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