“The Hedge-Witch of Welland” by Ada Hoffmann and Jacqueline Flay

Two kilometers from the plume of steam marking the Horseshoe Falls, past the candy-colored ruins of the tourist part of town, to the south of a grove of peach trees which have twinkled with the blue-white scales of small lizards ever since the Rapture took the farmers away, stands the cottage of the Hedge-Witch of Welland.

It’s a mismatched cottage, old with ivy on one wall but sprouting strange new flowers on the other. There is an ugly black tarp over the roof and a latch-hooked carpet across the tiled floor. The Hedge-Witch’s magic is a mismatch, too: herbs and meditation, chants she makes up out of her head, charts and symbols drawn on the wall which correspond to things she cannot name.

The Rapture did not take away the good Christians and leave the witches, as the Hedge-Witch’s father always said it would. It took away nearly everyone, and the ones who were left knew even less about magic than the Hedge-Witch. So she makes do.

Most mornings, the Hedge-Witch rises at dawn from the arms of her lover, Amber Velazquez, who is intuitive but not a witch. The Hedge-Witch can feel power under Amber’s skin, but Amber has never used it, and seems to be happy that way. While Amber sleeps in, or cleans, or fixes the drywall, the Hedge-Witch puts on an amulet to stop dinosaurs from seeing her and slips outside. She picks herbs from the overgrown bushes around the cottage, gathers eggs from the hens, weeds the vegetable garden. Then, after a shared breakfast, she meditates on her front stoop.

The woods rustle with birds, butterflies, monsters. There are scavenging animals around, too, so the Hedge-Witch keeps the vegetable garden and chicken coop covered with wire mesh. Some mornings she goes outside and finds a dinosaur picking at the mesh with its toes, staring in at the cowering birds. Sometimes they give up quickly. Other times she chases them off with a spell. Sometimes a bigger predator looms. A tyrannosaur whose footsteps shake the earth. The Hedge-Witch knows better than to chase those ones. She goes inside, holds Amber, and waits for the steps to recede.

The world ended, ostensibly, with the Rapture. Yet things live and die and devour each other. The Hedge-Witch does not understand this. Most mornings it does not bother her. Most mornings the world feels full and peaceful. Sitting on her front stoop, breathing fresh air and pressing her bare feet to the ground, is enough.

Most mornings.

But this morning, Amber has a fever, and her leg is looking worse.

Amber loves the sun and the wind as much as the Hedge-Witch does. Yesterday it was her turn to go out and gather fallen branches for the fireplace. She had an amulet, of course. But the Hedge-Witch’s amulets aren’t perfect. Maybe it needed charging and she hadn’t noticed. Maybe Amber made a stupid mistake: magic won’t protect you if you walk right up in a predator’s face. Maybe it was just bad luck. All the Hedge-Witch knows is she heard Amber screaming, dropped the tomatoes she was chopping, and rushed outside.

It was a small pack, as raptors went. Only three. The Hedge-Witch ran at them, bellowing. She shaped her fear into something like a missile, flung it at them, and they startled and loped away.

Amber lay on the ground, bleeding from a bad bite in her thigh.

“Gabby,” said Amber, blinking up at her. This is the Hedge-Witch of Welland’s real name, though nobody but Amber ever uses it. The Hedge-Witch does not think of herself with a name anymore, and the other threadbare survivors who stop by the cottage are content to call her “Hedge-Witch.”

“It’s going to be okay,” said the Hedge-Witch. “We can fix this. Ssh.”

“It’s funny,” said Amber. “They felt like they were only eating. They didn’t know any better. Isn’t that strange?” She was sweating, too in shock to panic. Or perhaps too Amber to panic.

“No,” said the Hedge-Witch. “It’s not strange.”

“Maybe I messed up the magic.” Amber said dreamily. “Maybe I saw them and was too interested-”

“None of that,” the Hedge-Witch snapped. “You know better.”

Amber was the one who taught the Hedge-Witch, years ago, not to wallow in guilt.

The Hedge-Witch picked her up by the arms and carried her, stumblingly, to the cottage. She did the best she could with the supplies on hand: a needle and thread sterilized in the fireplace, alcohol to disinfect the wound, thick gauze bandages from the abandoned pharmacy. When that was done, she used magic, too. Teas made from every healing herb in the garden. Cleaning and cleansing, sage and salt, entreaties to the spirits around the house. She peered through the energy of Amber’s body and cursed herself for not knowing more. For not being sure what a wound this size was supposed to look like, to magical senses, or what she was supposed to do.

“Gabby,” said Amber, “stop trying to know things you don’t and just hold me. Please.”

“Not yet,” said the Hedge-Witch.

This was an argument they had over and over again. The Hedge-Witch hated knowing nothing but legends and guesswork. Amber did not see the problem. She would ask why magic had to be taught with words in the first place, what was wrong with just opening your mind and feeling what had to be done, and the Hedge-Witch would growl and sulk. Amber was not a witch, and Amber had no idea what this was like, or how the missing knowledge hurt.

Sometimes, when Amber told her to stop trying, she stopped. Not last night, though. She was not losing Amber. She had lost so much already. Not this.

In the morning, Amber’s head lolls, and her forehead burns with fever. The wound is festering. Amber opens her eyes and looks through the Hedge-Witch, not at her.

“Gabby,” she mumbles.

“I’m here,” says the Hedge-Witch.

But the Hedge-Witch is not here. The real Hedge-Witch of Welland, the witch she was meant to be, would know how to save the woman she loved.

* * *

Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. That was how Gabby’s father said it would be.

The day of the Rapture, Gabby had skipped math and gone to the public park a block away. She had run through the sunlit grass, feeling life rustle against her ankles, and tumbled down to lie in the sunshine with Madeline. Shockingly beautiful Madeline, the red-headed girl from the homeroom next to Gabby’s, who understood magic.

Just being within arm’s reach of Madeline, with Madeline focused on her, felt different from anything else. Magic radiated from Madeline. Things jumped, sometimes, from Madeline’s head to Gabby’s—little things, like the idea of going to the park in the first place.

Just from lying next to Madeline, here in the sun-warmed grass, Gabby could tell that Madeline wanted to kiss her. Gabby wanted that too—almost. But there was one thing in the way. A guilt that Gabby could not quite name. So they only picked the grass and talked.

“You’ve got to take off your shoes,” said Madeline, “when you’re walking here.” Madeline’s shoes were little green flip-flops, easily kicked away. Gabby’s were tight lace-up boots. She hesitated. “It’s so you can ground,” said Madeline. “This is a good place for it. You can drink up energy from the earth through your feet.”

Gabby could feel it when Madeline said the words. How Madeline had done it before, how she needed that stability like food, sometimes. She could feel something glowing underneath this field, something peaceful and good, not a wicked thing. Gabby wanted more of that, and more of Madeline.

But she did not reach for her boots.

Madeline sighed. “You’re not ready.”

“I want to be ready.”

“It’s your family.”

Gabby had never talked aloud about her family. But of course Madeline knew. It did not take words for someone like Madeline to recognize a preacher’s daughter terrified of what her father would say.

“This isn’t wrong,” said Madeline. “It’s how you were born.”

“I know.”

“But you don’t believe it. Saying the words in your head isn’t believing them.”

Gabby looked down for a hole in the earth to crawl into.

“Ssh,” says Madeline. And she took one of Gabby’s hands.

Touching Madeline’s hand was impossible. Electric. It made everything about Madeline sharp, like an outline in fire. It was not just their skin touching, but Madeline reaching out invisibly, through her. Gabby suddenly knew that if she reached out and took the other hand, she could move the same way. They could make a circuit, and-

The school bell rang in the distance. Gabby pulled away. Next class was English, and the English teacher had threatened to phone Gabby’s father if she was late again.

“It’s okay,” said Madeline. “I’ll still be here tomorrow.”

But Gabby never saw Madeline again.

* * *

“Take me to the Falls,” says Amber.

Amber’s fever is a babbling one: she has thrashed in the mismatched sheets, called for her mother, for peppermint candy, for a tiny tyrannosaur to pet. But this request has power. It startles the Hedge-Witch, who has turned away from the bed to make vegetable soup over the fire.

“You can’t walk that far,” says the Hedge-Witch.

“Take me,” says Amber. This time the Hedge-Witch is sure she sees power. Even though Amber is no better than before. The fever still rages.

“Why do you want to go?” says the Hedge-Witch.

Amber just looks at her, bleary and delirious, until the Hedge-Witch knows that there won’t be an answer. She’s either trusting this impulse or not.

Amber is intuitive, after all; maybe there is healing at the Falls. But there is power in death, too. The Hedge-Witch has seen that enough: the chickens she slaughters for food, the pests who steal the chickens, the massive, reeking dinosaur corpses that show up half-eaten in the woods.

“Come on,” she says, slipping amulets around both of their necks. Then she picks Amber up by the arms. Amber leans heavily, using only her good leg. They stumble out the door into the sunlit woods, with birds and lizards cheeping in the distance. Flowers tumble around the front path, and the sharp smell of the herb garden soothes the Hedge-Witch’s nose. It is warmer today, with a light breeze brushing the borrowed fever-heat from her skin.

But two kilometers is a long walk holding someone upright. And the Hedge-Witch cannot escape the feeling that Amber is going to the Falls to die.

It is the Hedge-Witch’s experience that all beautiful women die, and that love will be punished.

* * *

When Gabby went home, the day of the Rapture, her father was waiting.

The Hedge-Witch has trouble remembering just what he said. Perhaps the words did not matter. She does remember his rage. Sudden, boiling, as focused as love. His rage was more painful even than his fists, though the Hedge-Witch remembers his fists, too. His rage was a burning thing that went inside her and would not come out. No daughter of his would be a witch or a lesbian, or even a truant. In the name of Christ, he would beat these demons out of her.

At first Gabby pleaded with him. She did not know what he was talking about. She had never done anything like it.

Later, when he would not stop hurting her, she confessed. It was true. She had fallen in love with Madeline. She had dared to try magic. But it had been foolish and evil. She saw that now. She was sorry. She was so sorry. She would be such a good Christian girl forever, if only he would stop.

It was a very long time before he stopped.

There was a rumble all around when it happened, like an earthquake. Then, between one blow and the next, Gabby’s father became a ghost. A wind creature, borne up translucently. The air took him like the smoke from a candle, and then he was not there at all. Leaving Gabby, bruised and crying, on the dirty linoleum floor.

One will be taken and the other left.

* * *

The Hedge-Witch guides Amber, stumblingly, down the unkempt path through the woods, past the apple grove, toward the Falls. Next to them, a sauropod the size of a horse snuffles through the trees, brushing twigs aside, nipping small peaches from their stems and swallowing them whole. The Hedge-Witch imagines the lump of fruit pushing its way down that long, long neck, to a birdlike, rock-filled stomach.

“That one,” says Amber, pointing. There is power in her words again, even as her head lolls and burns against the Hedge-Witch’s shoulder.

The Hedge-Witch hesitates. They’d have to take their amulets off for the dinosaur to notice them. The Hedge-Witch changed Amber’s bandage on waking this morning, but it already blooms with red, and raptors love the smell of blood. A herbivore like this one is also dangerous on its own. It can rear and break their bones with a kick, or trample them in its rush to escape.

Amber shakes her head and tugs her own amulet off. The Hedge-Witch gasps and puts out a hand to force it back on, but she stops herself.

It is not as though the Hedge-Witch can carry Amber the whole way by herself. And it is not as though the amulet saved her before.

Nothing immediately rushes up to kill them. The sauropod glances warily at them, but does not flee.

The Hedge-Witch bites her lip, then pulls the amulet off her own neck and pockets them both.

She steadies herself against a tall tree for a moment, sways from side to side and finds her center. Then she flickers. She changes the shape of her mind.

I am like you, says the Hedge-Witch’s mind to the dinosaur. There is no danger here. I am friendly. I am happy to see you, my friend.

The dinosaur lumbers over, sniffing quickly at the Hedge-Witch’s skin, and longer at Amber’s. The Hedge-Witch hides her fear. She has soothed and directed animals in simple ways before, but never a dinosaur of this size. She promises help in return, should the dinosaur wish it. Through steady, gradual projections, she explains what is needed.

The dinosaur hesitates, then acquiesces. The Hedge-Witch pulls herself astride it, leans on the green and golden scales of its neck, and tugs Amber up beside her.

The woods go by full of dappled light. Butterflies flit past Amber and the Hedge-Witch’s faces, alighting in higher branches to press themselves against gold and violet flowers. Blue-white lizards and ash-colored squirrels squabble round the trunks of the trees; birds chatter in the wind.

The country and the apple-groves go by, and then the wreckage of the old tourist district, where Amber and the Hedge-Witch never go unless they are scavenging. The sauropod lumbers past broken-down motels with heart-shaped bathtubs shattered on their lawns. Crumpled fairground rides, drained-out neon tubes, melted wax museums. Here the land’s energy dims, though life persists in the corners: rats and spiders scuttle past wherever the ruins cast a shadow.

They emerge finally onto the lip of the gorge. There used to be towers here, too. But this close to the falls, assailed by constant spray and perched on weary, crumbling rocks, human things have died completely. There are only cliffs, tall grasses, hesitant saplings. Beyond them looms a curved wall of water so wild and green-white it can hardly be called water. Thunder and mist, and the deadly slow churn of the river below. Along with great magical power: a strong vibration under the Hedge-Witch’s feet, though it is not power on which she can draw. She knows better than to try, just as she knows not to physically stick her hand into the Falls.

Amber mutters something which is lost in the noise, but the thought comes clearly into the Hedge-Witch’s mind. This is better, says Amber, still thick with the sickening heat of the fever. Isn’t it?

It is what Amber has always believed. The Hedge-Witch can never quite bring herself to agree. The old world, at least, had hospitals.

She dismounts from the dinosaur and helps Amber down behind her. Thank you, she says to the dinosaur, touching its flank. It snorts and sends back an unidentifiable animal emotion.

Amber moves her lips again. This time the sound carries. “Take me down. Next to the river.”

Some of the ways to the river’s edge are still there: overgrown tunnels and rust-eaten stairways which spiral down to the rotten dock of the Maid of the Mist. It is claustrophobic, dirty, and full of bugs, but it can be done. There is a funny resonance to Amber now. Her energy expands, rising to meet the water.

The Hedge-Witch has never seen a human die. Being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, surely, does not count. She has seen animals die, but animal and human energies are not the same. She does not know if this is a movement to death or to life.

* * *

After the Rapture, when Gabby had cried herself out, she got up and looked for her mother. The house was empty. A pan of onions had burned black on the stove where her mother left them. Gabby turned off the stove. Her sisters were not in their rooms; her baby brother was nowhere. It was very, very quiet.

She walked out into the street. It felt like a movie without a soundtrack. Wreckage everywhere: suddenly-driverless cars overturned or crumpled against each other. Here and there, homes were on fire. People in them must have been smoking, or cooking like Gabby’s mother, and dropped it all when they were taken. Leaving the mortal world to burn.

There were no sirens, no screams, no sound of weeping: only the crackle of distant flames and the whisper of wind. Gabby walked until her legs gave out and heard nothing human. The background hum of other human minds, a feeling she had just begun to understand, with Madeline’s help—that was gone, too. There was nothing and no one.

The sky was a bright, incongruous blue.

Gabby knew the word Rapture, but she did not really believe it, even then. If Christ had come for the good Christians and left her behind, surely he would have left a few others. At least the obvious ones. The Sikh boy from her homeroom class. The girls in headscarves. The white boy who started an Atheist’s Club. All of them were gone.

Even Madeline.

(If Christ had come for the good Christians, Gabby thought later, he would not have taken her father.)

Gabby did not cry again. She walked through the town in an unbelieving daze. Broken buildings, empty homes, silence. There was no new, beautiful growth—not then. No dinosaurs. That came later. As far as Gabby could tell, the world was dead.

Maybe it was her fault, not Christ’s. That was how magic worked in stories. Witches were bad girls. Make them angry and they would destroy you, or try to. They’d burn down your school or summon demons to kill you. Couldn’t they also do this?

And hadn’t Gabby been angry? The Bible said to turn the other cheek. To be better than the people who hated you. But in her deepest heart, while her father raged, some hidden part of Gabby had been so angry back that it hurt.

Of course those thoughts were silly. She couldn’t have ended the world. The spells that the Hedge-Witch can do are so small. Sweeping away almost everyone in the world would take power she can’t fathom. It would tear her apart even to touch the edges of power like that.

But even against logic, for years, the Hedge-Witch always caught herself thinking, when I ended the world.

It was Amber who taught her another way.

They had been curled up outside the Hedge-Witch’s half-finished cottage: still a leaky ruin then, patched and caulked very badly, with the shaky skills the Hedge-Witch had gleaned from library books and supplies from the hardware store. That was one good thing about the Rapture having happened so fast: there was plenty left behind. Enough to get by on in the first hard winters, at least, while the Hedge-Witch worked out what to do next.

Amber had said something about helping tile over the cottage’s dirt floor—but that was a long-term job, months of work, if they wanted to keep gathering food and caring for themselves in the meantime. For the first time, it became clear to the Hedge-Witch that this was serious. That Amber, unlike every other ragged survivor the Hedge-Witch had come across, might stay.

That Amber thought she was good enough to stay with.

And before she could stop herself, before she could even say yes or no, the Hedge-Witch found herself blurting out the whole story.

Amber listened silently, eyes wide, mouth in a tiny frown that could have meant anything.

“Do you know,” she said at last, “that’s the worst part of this. Everyone I’ve talked to since the Rapture has told me that it was their fault.”

“What?” said Gabby.

She had never talked about it with anyone at all.

“Because they said something cruel to someone they loved, a minute earlier. They were in a terrible mood and wanted other people to go away. They read books about the apocalypse and liked it too much. They didn’t try hard enough to fix the world while it was here. It’s what humans do, Gabby, when we survive something terrible. We’d rather blame ourselves than admit that we don’t know the reason it happened. That there might not be a reason. So we tell ourselves if we were strong enough, good enough, we could have stopped it. But it’s never true. And we’re already strong enough.”

Amber was three years older than the Hedge-Witch; she had studied psychology at a university, before the Rapture. The Hedge-Witch shifted, unsure. “Did you used to think it was your fault, too?”

Amber looked down. “I was fighting with my girlfriend. Nothing like you and your father—we loved each other. It was just a stupid spat. Both stressed-out with midterms. She wanted to stay in, order pizza, and cuddle. I wanted to go to a paleontology talk. Some academic hot-shot talking about dinosaurs. We’d already bought tickets, but she didn’t want to go. She said, ‘You love dinosaurs more than me.’ I said she was being stupid and petty and went to the lecture anyway. The next day, she went away. Everyone went away. And the day after that, there were…”

“Dinosaurs,” the Hedge-Witch finished for her.

“I’m never going to a stupid paleontology lecture again,” Amber spat.

This time it was the Hedge-Witch who scooped Amber up, kissed her forehead. Amber clung to her. Only later, when the Hedge-Witch noticed soreness in her hands, did she realize she’d been clinging just as hard.

“Stay with me,” the Hedge-Witch whispered. “Please.” It was the first time she’d dared to ask aloud.

“Funny,” said Amber into the crook of Gabby’s shoulder. “I was going to ask you the same thing.”

* * *

The Hedge-Witch of Welland feels guilty now, sitting on the rocks with Amber. Spray rakes her face like sandpaper, like a showerhead on the “blast” setting, back when there were showers. Amber lies beside her, twitching and flickering. The Hedge-Witch stares into the froth and tries not to think of all the ways she could be wrong. The ways she or Amber could destroy themselves, reaching too far into the river’s power. Not that they need magic for that; they could just jump in, let themselves drown or be dashed against stones.

It is not fair to wish for Madeline. But Madeline would be able to explain all this. What to do about death. What to do about love. What the world is for, now. Why the Hedge-Witch is even alive.

She spends nearly an hour breathing, meditating, trying not to wish. Then Amber’s hand brushes her shoulder, and she turns.

Amber kisses her, the fever broken. She has pushed herself upright, using both legs, and the pain is gone. Amber’s hands lock around hers. For a moment, the Hedge-Witch can feel Amber’s power from the inside: strong enough and light enough to latch on to the Falls itself. She feels Amber feeling it too, welcoming the Hedge-Witch in to see it. Wanting her to know.

Who was she to tell Amber that Amber wasn’t a witch? Just because her power didn’t work the same way. Just because she never needed it like this before. Amber has always been full of power. Amber’s mind, just starting to understand this, is the most beautiful thing the Hedge-Witch has ever felt.

The Hedge-Witch tightens her hand around Amber’s, completing the circuit, and for minutes neither bothers to count, the sound of the Falls is drowned out.

Then it’s over, and they separate, glowing.

“I didn’t know either,” says Amber.

The Hedge-Witch, just for a moment, feels a flash of jealousy. What is it like? Learning what you are in one moment, not hiding or being hated the next. Being strong enough to save yourself when it matters.

But of course the Hedge-Witch knows now what that is like.

“You’re alive,” she says. “You’re better.”

“Tired,” says Amber, but she smiles.

She slumps against the Hedge-Witch and they cling to each other. The Falls thunder, soaking their skin.

* * *

The word apokalyptos, in the ancient Greek of the Bible, does not mean the end of the world.

Apokalyptos means uncovering. A veil is drawn back. An eye opens. We see the world as it will be, or as it always was.

Apokalyptos means the Hedge-Witch of Welland rubbing the shame from her eyes and really seeing. Not the end, but the beginning. Not what people like her father tried to make of the world, but what it is: the fruit trees, the butterflies, the dinosaurs, the water. Seeing power. Seeing love.

The world never really ended, after all. So the Hedge-Witch of Welland brushes—Gabby brushes—the damp hair out of Amber’s face. They stand, hand in hand, turn their back to the Falls, and journey home.

Ada Hoffmann is the author of the space opera novel The Outside, as well as dozens of speculative short stories and poems. She is an autistic self-advocate, an adjunct professor of computer science, a former semi-professional soprano, tabletop gaming enthusiast, and LARPer. She lives in eastern Ontario.

Jacqueline Flay is a cipher.