In a world that has become treacherous and desiccated, Magdala has always had to fight to survive…
We’re thrilled to share the cover and preview an excerpt from Kay Chronister’s stylish debut novel, Desert Creatures—a feminist horror set in the near-future American West. Forthcoming November 8, 2022 from Erewhon Books.
In a world that has become treacherous and desiccated, Magdala has always had to fight to survive. At nine years old, she and her father, Xavier, are exiled from their home, fleeing through the Sonoran Desert, searching for refuge.
As violence pursues them, they join a handful of survivors on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Las Vegas, where it is said the vigilante saints reside, bright with neon power. Magdala, born with a clubfoot, is going to be healed. But when faced with the strange horrors of the desert, one by one the pilgrims fall victim to a hideous sickness—leaving Magdala to fend for herself.
After surviving for seven years on her own, Magdala is sick of waiting for her miracle. Recruiting an exiled Vegas priest named Elam at gunpoint to serve as her guide, Magdala turns her gaze to Vegas once more, and this time, nothing will stop her. The pair form a fragile alliance as they navigate the darkest and strangest reaches of the desert on a trip that takes her further from salvation even as she nears the holy city.
With ferocious imagination and poetic precision, Desert Creatures is a story of endurance at the expense of redemption. What compromise does survival require of a woman, and can she ever unlearn the instincts that have kept her alive?
Kay Chronister is a writer of dark and speculative fiction. Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, The Dark and elsewhere, and has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Her Shirley Jackson award-nominated collection of short stories, Thin Places, was published by Undertow Publications in 2020. Her first novel, Desert Creatures, is forthcoming from Erewhon Books this year. Currently a PhD candidate in English at the University of Arizona, she researches romance, folklore, and politics in eighteenth-century Britain. When not teaching, writing, or scouring archives, she enjoys running, her dogs, and reading books from this century.
After months in the harsh settlement of Caput Lupinum, an accidental killing forces Magdala, her father, and a group of fellow outcasts to flee into the poisoned, twisted desert. There, tensions rise between Magdala and her father Xavier, devout believer Alma and her husband Matias, and lone wolf Rawley, on whether they attempt a pilgrimage to the holy city of Las Vegas.
Late in the afternoon, they passed a man sitting perched on the head of a saguaro cactus. Beneath his thinning thatch of hair his head was deeply sunburnt. His robe was white, blood stains tracking down the hem
Matias crossed himself at the sight. They gave the man a wide berth, though did not acknowledge them as they passed. Magdala could not tear her eyes away. The look on the hermit’s face was something between stubbornness and bliss, his eyes gently shut and his mouth hard-set. There was no question that he was alive, but he did not seem to feel the needles that must have been digging into his flesh. With admiration, almost with jealousy, she thought that the man could have walked a hundred miles on a clubfoot without complaint or rest if he’d had one.
Before long they came to another cactus-sitter, and another; down the wide sweep of a ravine, they found an entire forest of saguaros mounted by people in white sackcloth.
Rawley let out a low whistle.
“They got tents down there,” said Matias, pointing at the circle of white dots in the center of the cactus forest. “Could ask to stay the night.”
“How do you know they’re safe?” Alma said.
“Don’t know for certain” he said. “But they don’t seem dangerous.”
“Don’t seem dangerous? They don’t seem awake,” Rawley said. “We’ve already got the heads of wolves. No sense in pleading for a little when we can take it all. Bet they’ve got good eating. Canteens of cool water. Maybe even a little whiskey, though I confess I’m not holding my breath.”
“How can you talk about robbing them?” Alma said. “They’ve done nothing to us.”
“Not much interested in the compunctions of a woman who’s been living fenced like a pet pony,” Rawley said, and spit on the dirt for emphasis like Seth used to do. “Come on, Matias,” he said. “You’re a sensible man; don’t you agree with me?”
Matias hesitated, his eyes fixed on the rolling landscape and its scores of hermits. “Let’s just walk on,” he said at last. “It’s not worth the trouble.”
“Magdala needs rest,” Xavier said, firmly. “She and I gotta stop, if no one else will.”
Magdala flinched at the weight of all their stares on her. “I can go on,” she assured them.
“There’s no need,” Alma said, and in front of the men Magdala was almost embarrassed by the kindness that in the dark of the bank vault had been a comfort. “Rosy needs to nurse anyhow,” she said.
Rawley shook his head. “I’ll be out here if you need me,” he said. “Make camp right there.” He jerked his chin toward an outcropping of rock, sun-exposed and yucca-studded.
“Don’t be foolish,” Xavier said to him.
Rawley stood a moment with his jaw clenched. Then he nodded and followed the rest of them down the hillside.
None of the cactus-sitters stopped them or spoke to them as they trailed through the saguaro forest; none even opened their eyes. It would have been easy, Magdala thought, as Rawley had said, to rob them. But she felt their vulnerability almost as her own, and a greater part of her wanted to shout a warning. You could be shot! Hit! Knocked down and everything taken from you!
They had almost reached the tents in the center of the cactus forest before a small man with a rounded back emerged from one of them, leaning heavily on a stick of juniper.
“Welcome,” he said, tilting his head up to meet their eyes. “I am Deocaro. And who are all of you?”
“We’re just passing through,” Xavier said. “But we’d be real obliged if we could stay the night in your camp. Maybe get a little water.”
“We would love to offer you food and shelter, on a few conditions,” the man said. “The first is that you come without your guns. Bury them in the desert or entrust them to us, it makes no difference. We are all unarmed here and we ask as a gesture of good will.”
“No one here is armed?” said Matias.
“No one. I promise you.”
The men exchanged glances. Xavier slid his gun from the holster, unloaded it and presented it on the flats of his palms to the old man; a moment later, Matias did the same. They looked expectantly at Rawley, who stood motionless with his hand on his revolver.
“No chance,” he said. “This doesn’t leave my side.”
“Don’t think they’re planning on a stick-up,” said Matias.
“What do they want the guns for, then?” Rawley shook his head. “No chance.”
“He wants to fend for himself, let him,” Alma said to her husband.
“You can find shelter in the ravines to the west of here,” Deocaro said, not unkindly. “Burros often dig for water there.”
Rawley’s eyes were wide as his gaze fell across them. Magdala thought she’d never seen him so afraid before, not even when Seth had a gun trained on her. His mouth opened, then shut. At last, he stalked away. “Find me in the morning,” he said over his shoulder. “Or don’t. I’m not risking it.”
In the shade of late-blooming acacia, Deocaro and two of his fellow hermits served them a meal of stewed mesquite peas and roasted crickets. As the dishes were set before them, Magdala remembered Rawley saying that she would never have to eat beetles as long as she stayed in Caput Lupinum, and she felt a small pang of loss, strange and unwanted, for the town they had left. But the crickets were not repulsive as she had thought they would be—they had a pleasingly almost-meaty taste that crackled in her mouth—and Magdala ate all that the cactus-sitters served her. When she had finished, she sat watching the cactus-sitter across from her consume his own small portion. The hermits lifted their spoons and swallowed their food with the same slow contemplative motions with which they did everything else. They took twice as long as their guests to eat.
“You folks been out here long?” Matias said to Deocaro.
“Fifteen years now,” he answered. “The first faithful in our order left Las Vegas twenty years ago, led by the trail guide Barabbas Knight. He robbed them of all their worldly possessions; abandoned them in the desert. For five years they wandered. Then one day, a revelation.” His smile in the firelight was radiant. “There is peace to be found here.”
“You saying it’s peaceful to straddle a cactus?” said Xavier.
“For some. In the right frame of mind. In the right place, the right time. There are many ways of being in the world now,” he said. “We all find one we can endure.”
When every plate was empty, Deocaro showed them to the empty tent reserved for strangers, then left them alone. As the sky darkened and the tent became dim, the faint sound of the hermits singing their vespers came on the wind.
“They’re heretics,” Alma said.
“How do you figure?”
“Didn’t you hear him say they left Vegas? To wander? I’m certain they were excommunicated. And if they couldn’t find another place to take them in – they must have some kind of barbaric inhuman practices.”
“Would it make Saint Elkhanah angry?” Magdala said. “That we’re staying with them?”
“Magdala,” Xavier said. “It doesn’t matter. We’re not on pilgrimage.”
Something collapsed inside her at his words; she realized then that she had believed if they left Caput Lupinum they would have to go to the holy city, that they would be drawn inexorably to the shrine holding her salvation no matter how many miles had to be crossed. She had never fathomed that her father would refuse her, not once he knew that she could be rid of her clubfoot.
“I thought you wanted me to be healed,” she said, bewildered.
“Sure, if there was any chance of it. But there’s not. It’s a bedtime story. A road ballad. A romance.”
“If you won’t take me, I’ll go by myself,” Magdala said, wanting to make him as frantic as she was, as desperate. “Or,” she went on, “or, Rawley will take me.”
“No one will take you,” said Xavier. “You’re not going, and that’s the end of it.” He took up one of the bedrolls curled in the corner. “I’ll be here,” he said, laying it out in front of the tent’s opening.
Magdala looked after him with her hands curled into fists, understanding the brand on her neck not as a mark of protection but a mark of ownership, hating the easy curve of his spine as he lay on his side between her and the desert, the simple fact of him enough to keep her in. Her salvation all depended on him, she thought, and he didn’t even care.
As night deepened and the vespers faded to the softer nocturnal chorus of mourning doves and cicadas, Magdala fell asleep despite herself; as her eyelids got heavy, her fury retreated. When she woke it was still dark, and from outside low voices came: her father’s and someone else’s.
“Not a survivor,” she heard Xavier say. “This world is not made for her,” the other voice answered. Magdala rose to her feet and peeked out the flap of the tent, her ears prying stray words apart from the low hum of their murmurs. One of the cactus-sitters had kindled a small fire just beyond the tent; they sat propped on a flat stone, stirring the coals with a stick. Her father sat across from them, his back to Magdala. “She still thinks there’s some way out of this,” he was saying.
She thought for a second of sneaking away from him; imagined herself stealing through the saguaros past the cactus-sitters with their perpetually closed eyes. Then the hermit sitting across the fire said, “You won’t take her on pilgrimage?”
“I never even heard the name of Elkhanah ‘til someone was warning me away from him. And it’s all a scam, isn’t it? Set any pile of bones on a pedestal and people will come to see them. Thinking they’re touching something that’s not here anymore, that maybe never was. ”
“Would you take her if you thought it would work?”
“Does it work?”
The cactus-sitter made a soft sound of amusement. “I confess,” they said. “I’m not liable to believe in the sanctity of a saint best known for his sharpshooting. Nor in any of the cowboy saints of Vegas. But who knows why miracles happen, or where? It is the faithfulness of the pilgrim that sanctifies her, not her touching of relics.”
“So you think she could be cured.”
“I believe,” they said, “she could be healed.”
“What’s the difference?”
The cactus-sitter’s head lifted; Magdala caught their eyes. “Little one,” they said. “Did we wake you?”
Shame-faced, Magdala emerged from the tent and stumbled to her father’s side. After a full day of walking, her clubfoot was so stiff and swollen that she could not disguise the pain of standing on it. The cactus-sitter did not pretend not to see; their gaze was steady, unabashed. “Child,” they said, “have you ever ridden horseback?”
Magdala shook her head.
“Stay here a moment,” they said, getting to their feet.
Left alone with her father, Magdala twisted her hands awkwardly in her lap and did not look at him, shame and anger and fear of losing his love all knotted inside of her. She half-startled when he reached for her hand and held it. The feel of his fingers and the heartbeat that thudded in his wrist disarmed her, and at once she wrapped her arms around him and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” though not what for, letting him think she meant only her anger in the tent and not the two flights across the desert, their homelessness, the wolf’s head on him. He held still within her embrace.
When the cactus-sitter returned, they were leading a small sway-backed mule in a rope halter. “For you,” they said to Magdala, holding the animal’s lead rope out to her.
“We can’t take this from you,” said Xavier.
“You can,” they said, and their eyes were on Magdala. “Someday you are going to be back here to return it.”
Excerpted from Desert Creatures, copyright © 2022 by Kay Chronister.