The following is from Tess Gunty's debut novel The Rabbit Hutch, a story about four teenagers—recently aged out of the state foster-care system—living together in an apartment building in the post-industrial Midwest. Gunty earned an MFA in creative writing from NYU, where she was a Lillian Vernon Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Joyland, Los Angeles Review of Books, No Tokens, Flash, and elsewhere. She was raised in South Bend, Indiana, and lives in Los Angeles.
Around five in the evening on Monday, July fifteenth—two days before she exits her body—Blandine Watkins stops at the laundromat before heading northeast and wonders if the night’s impending activity will reveal her to be a moral or immoral person. Power is one translation of virtue, she knows, and she believes that there is no such thing as amoral activity. Blandine recalls a passage that Hildegard von Bingen wrote about nine hundred years ago: The will warms an action, the mind receives it, and thought bodies it forth. This understanding, however, discerns an action by the process of knowing good and evil. Blandine has plenty of will—the will is like a fire baking every action in an oven, according to Hildegard—and some thoughts, but does she lack moral understanding? After considering the question for a few minutes, she realizes she’s not very invested in it.
Sitting on the laundromat bench, Blandine tries to uncramp her muscles, clip herself from her body, and focus on the slobber of the machines. A dull financial angst pounds around her kidneys. She thinks of the urban revitalization plan that is about to destroy the last good thing in Vacca Vale: a lush expanse of park called Chastity Valley. Blandine is sick of cartoon villains. She prefers her villains complex and nuanced. Disguised as heroes.
Two heavy corduroy bags wait at her feet like a pair of guard dogs. The presence of free coffee at this underfunded laundromat always moves Blandine. She tries to focus on the smell of it, but a violent energy is brewing inside her. Her knees bounce uncontrollably.
The laundromat is usually vacant on Mondays, but this evening, another woman sits opposite Blandine, her eyes pinned to a forsaken sock on the linoleum. Unblinking, unseeing. The woman’s hair is the color of mouse fur, her bangs are cut short, and she is wearing woolly knitted clothes despite the heat. Forty-something. She has the posture of a question mark, a stock face, and a pair of nineteenth-century eyeglasses. Her solitude is as prominent as the cross around her neck. You could be persuaded you’d never seen her before, even if you passed her daily. You could be persuaded you saw her every day, even if you’d never passed her before. You’d ask her for directions; you’d tag her with a name like Susan and with a job in accounting; you’d assume that she keeps a bird feeder. She could be your neighbor. She could be your relative. She could be anyone. Frightened by the energy building inside her, Blandine resolves to talk to this woman.
“Do you live in the Rabbit Hutch?” asks Blandine. “You look familiar.”
The woman twitches. “Yes.” Her voice is like a communion wafer— tasteless, light. Blandine was never baptized, but she sometimes attends Catholic Mass and receives communion anyway. It’s not like they check your ID.
“What floor?” asks Blandine.
“I’m third. What’s your door?”
The woman inspects Blandine as though X-raying her for sinister motives. “C2.”
“That’s directly below ours,” replies Blandine, smiling. “We’re C4.”
“It’s weird, right? Living so close to people you know nothing about?”
“Indeed,” responds the woman politely. She attaches her gaze to the machines, obviously longing for a return to the standard script, which demands nothing of strangers in public spaces but the exchange of a few half-smiles, to indicate that you won’t knife each other. She caps and uncaps a bottle of detergent in her lap.
“What’s your name?” asks Blandine.
The woman clenches her jaw, her shoulders, her hands. “Joan.”
“Joan. Nice to meet you, Joan. I’m Blandine.”
Joan waves feebly.
“Do you believe in an afterlife?” asks Blandine.
“Life after death?”
“I understand the term,” says Joan.
“Understand the term?”
“Believe in an afterlife?”
Joan’s attention escapes to a clock. “I guess so. Yes. I’m Catholic.”
“It sounds like you’re on the fence.”
“I’m not on the fence. I just didn’t expect the question.”
“It sounds like maybe you’re on the fence.”
Joan crosses her arms. “I’m Catholic.”
“Maybe you’re holding out for evidence.”
“You don’t need evidence when you have faith,” answers Joan. Then she blushes.
“Right, right. Faith is predicated upon an absence of evidence.” Blandine pauses. “But I always found that a bit awful of God. To withhold evidence, if the Cosmic Egg is so important. That’s how Hildegard von Bingen puts it—the Cosmic Egg. But yeah, it’s suspiciously stingy to give us nothing but a couple of self-professed messiahs every three thousand years. Prophets whose stories don’t align. Mary on toast. Somebody’s cured muscular dystrophy. It’s a lot to ask of us without collateral, don’t you think? Especially when there are so many competing stories, and the stakes are so high. Inferno or paradise. Forever.”
“I suppose,” says Joan.
“But Hildegard says that God told her—wait, I’ll find it—hang on. . . .” Blandine flutters through She-Mystics: An Anthology and, to Joan’s horror, begins reading out loud. “So God told Hildegard: ‘You, human creature! In the way of humans, you desire to know more about this exalted plan, but a seal of secrecy will be imposed on you; for you are not permitted to investigate the secrets of God more than the divine majesty wishes to reveal, because of his love for believers.’ ” Blandine closes the book, squints her eyes. “I don’t know. Seems like an easy exit, to me. God just loves believers so much? The hubris of it!”
Joan bristles. “Well, I don’t know.”
“Have you read Dante’s Divine Comedy?” asks Blandine.
Joan reacts like she’s being ridiculed. “No.”
“Read Purgatorio, if nothing else. It’s just like Vacca Vale. Like a travel guide. Honestly.”
Joan’s body contorts with the desire to be elsewhere, and Blandine sees it. She wants to stop haranguing this poor woman, but she feels like she’ll drown in a current of her own terrifying energy if she stops talking. “I’ve been reading about Catholic female mystics lately,” Blandine says.
“Do you know much about them?”
“They loved suffering,” says Blandine. “Mad for it.”
Joan picks a cuticle. Her nail beds are catastrophic. “Hm.”
“They were spectacularly unusual, the mystics. Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, for example? She said she could see the future by looking into this—this sort of sun globe? And Gabrielle Bossis—a French actress—she wrote a book transcribing her conversations with Jesus. Word for word, can you imagine? Therese Neumann never ate or drank anything besides the Eucharist. Marie Rose Ferron had her first vision of Jesus at the age of six. In Massachusetts, no less. And then there was Gemma Galgani. Daughter of passion, they called her. People were always walking in on Gemma in the middle of divine ecstasy, sometimes levitation. She had regular visions of her guardian angel and Jesus and the Virgin Mary—the whole crew—just kind of hanging out. She had a ‘great desire to suffer for Jesus.’ ”
A watery smile. “Too funny.”
“Blessed Maria Bolognesi’s another good one. She had a rough childhood—malnourishment, illness after illness, abusive stepfather, so forth, we’ve all been there—but then to top it off, she was possessed for about a year. There were the usual symptoms: afraid of holy water and priests, couldn’t enter churches, couldn’t receive sacraments, compulsively spat on sacred images. But my favorite part is that sometimes, invisible forces would pull at Maria’s clothes, and it would spook the living daylights out of her friends.”
Joan raises her eyebrows. “Invisible forces?”
“You know, that’s not even the part that strikes me most. It’s the friends. Maria maintained an active social life, while possessed.” Blandine places her hand over her heart. “Incredible.”
“Very unusual,” says Joan.
“Eventually,” Blandine continues, sprinting via language from the storm inside her, “a bishop snuck a blessing on Maria when she was on her way to a psychiatric hospital, allegedly exorcising her. A lot of the mystics were diagnosed with mental illnesses, as you’d expect. And just when things were looking up for Maria—demons gone, a spot of safety, a taste of health—she had a vision in which Jesus slipped a ruby ring on her fiancé finger.” Blandine pauses. She normally tries to avoid saying in which out loud, to minimize the number of people who find her insufferable. “And when she emerged from the vision, she saw the real, physical ring, right there, on her left hand. Bang.”
It’s clear to Blandine that this intrigues Joan against her will. “What did she do?”
“Oh, she freaked out. Then Jesus was like, You’re gonna sweat blood. And you know what? She did. All the time. Would stain the sheets and everything.”
“Why sweat blood?”
“To suffer for Jesus, I guess.”
“But why that?”
Blandine considers. “The book never explains it.”
“You know what’s even weirder? According to her friend, after Maria would do her thing—sweat blood—the whole room would fill with this… this kind of perfume?”
“What did it smell like?”
“I don’t know. They say it was sweet.”
“Horrible,” says Joan darkly.
“I know. But it wasn’t all bad. Jesus helped Maria prophesize the end of World War II, got her little sister a job… personally, I find the engaged-to-Jesus rhetoric creepy as hell, incestuous at best, but it’s quite a phenomenon. Most of the female mystics report similar experiences. Jesus appears to them and—you know—proposes.”
Sweat is blooming from the woman’s face. “I don’t like that.”
“A lot of them had stigmata—where you bleed from the wrists and feet and side? For no medical reason? Holy Wounds, they say. Wounds corresponding to the ones Jesus received during crucifixion.”
“Is that so?”
“According to accounts. But who’s to say, really? Most of the female mystics starved themselves in favor of ‘purer nourishment.’ They were always very sick. A lot of them died young. Skeptics say that their visions were really just migraines. I think that we see whatever we fear, whatever we want. We look at the world, absorb thirty percent of its data, and our subconscious fills in the rest.” Blandine cracks her knuckles. “I’m not sure I believe in God.”
Joan removes her glasses and massages a lens with her long skirt. “Reading can be a nice pastime.”
“Sometimes I think they were just hungry.”
Joan considers. “Possible.”
It is Joan’s reluctant engagement with the conversation, not her protest against it, that motivates Blandine to muster all the willpower she possesses and force these leaping, punching words to stay inside her head. It’s like closing a cellar latch against the winds of a tornado, and her knee springs wildly as she does it, but she succeeds. Joan appears relieved.
Among the many objections Blandine harbors against the Catholic female mystics, the one she can’t overcome is the fundamental selfishness. The individualism operating in their lives. Even within religious communities, among the mystics, there was a premium on seclusion, and it’s clear to Blandine that when a person is in the middle of divine ecstasy, she’s really just interacting with herself. An elevated form of masturbation. Many convents devoted themselves to people who were poor, elderly, sick, displaced, ostracized, imprisoned, disabled, orphaned. But the mystics—the ones Blandine admires—they didn’t get out much. They viewed solitude as a precondition of divine receptivity. Most spent their lives essentially alone.
So how, wonders Blandine, would a contemporary mystic challenge the plundering growth imperative, if that were her goal? She’d have to break out of her solitude. There’s no way to overthrow the system without going outside and making some eye contact. No matter how small your carbon footprint, you can’t simply forgo food and comfort and sex all your life and call yourself ethically self-sacrificial. In order for her life to be considered ethical, thinks Blandine, she must try to dismantle systemic injustice. But she doesn’t know how to do that.
Blandine sighs. She always knew that she was too small and stupid to lead a revolution, but she had hoped she could at least imagine one. She takes a deep breath, attacked by an awareness of how impossible it is to learn and accomplish all that she needs to learn and accomplish before she dies. She’s spiraling down thoughts of the albedo effect and the positive correlation between climate change and most mass extinctions on the geologic record when Joan drops her detergent cap. It rolls beneath a machine. Blandine stands and retrieves it for her.
“Thank you,” replies Joan. “How old are you?”
“Eighteen!” Joan exclaims. “But you can’t—are you really?”
“You don’t seem eighteen.”
This accusation depresses Blandine more and more each time it is leveled against her.
“I don’t know how else to seem,” she mutters.
“You just you don’t sound like you’re eighteen.”
You can’t exist, the world informs Blandine daily. You’re not possible.
“Well,” says Blandine. “I am.”
“You’re very . . .” Joan squints at her as though she’s an abstract painting, then trails off. “Are you going to college?”
Blandine touches her neck, upset to find it there. “No.”
“Oh, well,” says Joan sweetly. “It’s never too late. You should think about it. They have a lot of people like you there. I went to VVCC, myself.”
Vacca Vale Community College. “That’s nice,” says Blandine. “Maybe I’ll apply.”
“Yes.” Joan smiles. “I think you’d enjoy it.”
They sit in silence. Blandine forces herself not to say anything, hoping that Joan will engage with the mystics’ fetishization of suffering. Perhaps Joan’s just reflecting. But soon it becomes clear that Joan is waiting for the topic to pass, like a flash of hail. Loneliness grips Blandine with the force of a puppeteer.
“Do you have a bird feeder?” Blandine asks, changing course.
“You just—you look like the kind of person who would have a bird feeder.”
“No,” replies Joan.
“Have you ever had a bird feeder?”
“Not even as a child?”
“Huh.” Blandine tucks the library book back in her bag. “Well, Joan, between you and me, I’m giving mysticism a go, myself. I think I have a real shot. From what I can tell, theism isn’t a necessary prerequisite. All I want is to exit my body.”
Joan coughs. “Ah.”
“I think we should all take each other a little more seriously.”
A pause. “Perhaps,” whispers Joan.
“Sometimes I walk around, bumping into people, listening to them joke and fight and sneeze, and I don’t believe anyone is real. Not even myself. Do you know what I mean?”
Joan looks her in the eye for the first time. “Yes.”
“It’s like what Simone Weil says. ‘To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do—that is enough, the rest follows of itself.’ Simone was a bona fide mystic.” Blandine bites her nail. “What’s the rest, I wonder.”
“I’m glad we met,” says Blandine. “Strange to remain strangers with your neighbor, don’t you think?”
“We’re all just sleepwalking. Can I tell you something, Joan? I want to wake up. That’s my dream: to wake up.”
“Oh. Well. You’ll be okay.”
“I feel better, having met you. Like, ten milligrams more awake.”
Joan blinks. “That’s nice.”
“But I know I’m not doing it right.”
“Pop religion and demons and little biographies. Sweating blood. You must think I’m bananas.”
“No.” Joan checks her phone in a clunky, theatrical gesture. “No, no. Oh, late. I should get going.” She stands abruptly. “Nice to meet you.” Abandoning her load of blues, she exits the laundromat and slips into the evening as though trying not to wake it.
Alone, Blandine grips her forehead. She’s certain that she has some kind of social impairment; she just doesn’t know what it’s called. Internet quizzes never know what to do with her. In general, she feels too much or too little, interacts too much or too little—never the proper amount. It seems to her that she’s spent her whole life sitting in a laundromat, freaking people out. The energy mounts and mounts; she should have brought her vaporizer. She forces herself to sit in quiet. Then she checks her watch. Finally, it’s time to go.
She lifts her corduroy bags, which are stocked with bottles of fake blood, several voodoo dolls fashioned from sticks, bags of dirt from the Valley, latex-free gloves, her library book, and small animal skeletons. She power walks into an enchanting Midwestern dusk and makes her way northeast to the Vacca Vale Country Club. It’s hot, but her hands are numb.
Excerpted from The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty. Published August 2, 2022 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Tess Gunty.