Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning, The

By Audrey J. Whitson

Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning, The
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Three years into the second millennium, Majestic, Alberta is a farm town dealing with depressed crop prices, international borders closing to Canadian beef, and a severe drought. Older farmers worry about their way of life changing while young people concoct ways to escape: ... Read more


Three years into the second millennium, Majestic, Alberta is a farm town dealing with depressed crop prices, international borders closing to Canadian beef, and a severe drought. Older farmers worry about their way of life changing while young people concoct ways to escape: drugs, partying, moving away. Even the church is on the brink of closing.

When local woman Annie Gallagher is struck by lightning while divining water for a well, stories of the town's past, including that of Annie and the grandmother who taught her water witching, slowly pour forth as everyone gathers for her funeral.

Told through the varied voices of the townspeople and Annie herself, The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning reveals Majestic to be a complex character in its own right, both haunted and haunting. Here, Audrey J. Whitson has written a novel of hard choices and magical necessity.

Audrey J. Whitson

Audrey J. Whitson's first book, Teaching Places (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003), a memoir about how the land teaches, was shortlisted for the Wilfred Eggleston Award, Grant MacEwan Author Award and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year (body/mind/spirit category). Stories from The Glorious Mysteries (Thistledown, 2013) -- a collection set in Alberta, California, and Mexico -- were shortlisted for the Howard O'Hagan Award and long¬listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Her poetry and essays have been published in many magazines and anthologies and have also won awards. Audrey lives in Edmonton. To learn more about her work, visit


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 straitjacket 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 straitjacket 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.


  • Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize 2020,


Praise for The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning:
"Majestic is depicted with poetic complexity. Annie's friends have a salt-of-the-earth goodness, and Annie herself is a faceted, compelling woman who emerges from personal darkness to find her own peace. "
~ Meg Nola, Foreword Reviews
"Whitson's novel is, by the end, a reckoning with the past, both personal and communal, but also a tale of joy--the earthy preparations for the dead and a diving born of the body. "
Bryn Evans, Alberta Views
"It's tricky business, allowing so many voices to create the narrative in a story, but Audrey Whitson has linked these people together not only as people who loved Annie, but as community. Relationships with Annie emerge, and so too do the intimate details of the lives of her neighbours. "
~ Betty Jane Hegerat, author of The Boy and Delivery
"[a] stunningly written novel. ..."
~ All Lit Up

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