Main The Vanishing Half: A Novel
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This is the right copy. Front and back matter, table of contents, original formatting, all complete and correct.
17 July 2020 (23:40)
This is a perfect book for anyone who wants to embark on an adventure. 10/10
25 July 2020 (10:25)
Absolutely amazing. Couldn't stop reading. Very excited to see what happens with the HBO series and very keen to read more of Brit Bennett's writing in the future! Left me wanting more in the best way possible.
17 November 2020 (11:28)
Enjoyed this read so much. Despite it being a little more lengthy I read it in 3 days as I was captivated by the story
09 February 2021 (20:37)
Couldn't stop reading and flipping the pages ...so beautifully written and full of emotion
19 February 2021 (18:00)
I enjoyed it immensely, but somehow the ending felt rushed. After delving into the two sisters and their daughters with their paralleled lives, I feel the ending could have gotten the same attention as the middle.
22 May 2021 (04:36)
very very nice and amusing.
29 August 2021 (18:41)
Not too bad, but I wasn't a fan. The story switched between time periods and characters so quickly that you couldn't really form a bond with them, and the ending was soooo rushed. I was honestly shocked when I turned the page on my kindle and the book had ended.
21 September 2021 (02:19)
RIVERHEAD BOOKS An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC penguinrandomhouse.com Copyright © 2020 by Brittany Bennett Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Bennett, Brit, author. Title: The vanishing half / Brit Bennett. Description: New York : Riverhead Books, 2020. Identifiers: LCCN 2020005358 (print) | LCCN 2020005359 (ebook) | ISBN 9780525536291 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780525536970 (ebook) Subjects: GSAFD: Mystery fiction. Classification: LCC PS3602.E66444 V36 2020 (print) | LCC PS3602.E66444 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6--dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020005358 LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020005359 International edition ISBN: 9780593190197 This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Cover design and art: Lauren Peters-Collaer pid_prh_5.5.0_c0_r0 For my family CONTENTS Cover Title Page Copyright Dedication Part I: The Lost Twins (1968)One Two Three Part II: Maps (1978)Four Five Six Part III: Heartlines (1968)Seven Eight Nine Part IV: The Stage Door (1982)Ten Eleven Twelve Thirteen Part V: Pacific Cove (1985; /1988)Fourteen Fifteen Part VI: Places (1986)Sixteen Seventeen Acknowledgments About the Author Part I THE LOST TWINS (1968) One The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort. The barely awake customers clamored around him, ten or so, although more would lie and say that they’d been there too, if only to pretend that this once, they’d witnessed something truly exciting. In that little farm town, nothing surprising ever happened, not since the Vignes twins had disappeared. But that morning in April 1968, on his way to work, Lou spotted Desiree Vignes walking along Partridge Road, carrying a small leather suitcase. She looked exactly the same as when she’d left at sixteen—still light, her skin the color of sand barely wet. Her hipless body reminding him of a branch caught in a strong breeze. She was hurrying, her head bent, and—Lou paused here, a bit of a showman—she was holding the hand of a girl, seven or eight, and black as tar. “Blueblack,” he said. “Like she flown direct from Africa.” Lou’s Egg House splintered into a dozen different conversations. The line cook wondered if it had been Desiree after all, since Lou was turning sixty in May and still too vain to wear his eyeglasses. The waitress said that it had to be—even a blind man could spot a Vignes girl and it certainly couldn’t have been that other one. The diners, abandoning grits and eggs on the counter, didn’t care about that Vignes foolishness—who on earth was the dark child? Could she possibly be Desiree’s? “Well, who else’s could it be?” Lou said. He grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser, dabbing his damp forehead. “Maybe it’s an orphan that got took in.” “I just don’t see how nothin that black coulda come out Desiree.” “Desiree seem like the type to take in no orphan to you?” Of course she didn’t. She was a selfish girl. If they remembered anything about Desiree, it was that and most didn’t recall much more. The twins had been gone fourteen years, nearly as long as anyone had ever known them. Vanished from bed after the Founder’s Day dance, while their mother slept right down the hall. One morning, the twins crowded in front of their bathroom mirror, four identical girls fussing with their hair. The next, the bed was empty, the covers pulled back like any other day, taut when Stella made it, crumpled when Desiree did. The town spent all morning searching for them, calling their names through the woods, wondering stupidly if they had been taken. Their disappearance seemed as sudden as the rapture, all of Mallard the sinners left behind. Naturally, the truth was neither sinister nor mystical; the twins soon surfaced in New Orleans, selfish girls running from responsibility. They wouldn’t stay away long. City living would tire them out. They’d run out of money and gall and come sniffling back to their mother’s porch. But they never returned again. Instead, after a year, the twins scattered, their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find. Now she was back, Lord knows why. Homesick, maybe. Missing her mother after all those years or wanting to flaunt that dark daughter of hers. In Mallard, nobody married dark. Nobody left either, but Desiree had already done that. Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far. In Lou’s Egg House, the crowd dissolved, the line cook snapping on his hairnet, the waitress counting nickels on the table, men in coveralls gulping coffee before heading out to the refinery. Lou leaned against the smudged window, staring out at the road. He ought to call Adele Vignes. Didn’t seem right for her to be ambushed by her own daughter, not after everything she’d already been through. Now Desiree and that dark child. Lord. He reached for the phone. “You think they fixin to stay?” the line cook asked. “Who knows? She sure seem in a hurry though,” Lou said. “Wonder what she hurryin to. Look right past me, didn’t wave or nothin.” “Uppity. And what reason she got to be uppity?” “Lord,” Lou said. “I never seen a child that black before.” * * * — IT WAS A strange town. Mallard, named after the ring-necked ducks living in the rice fields and marshes. A town that, like any other, was more idea than place. The idea arrived to Alphonse Decuir in 1848, as he stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place. His mother, rest her soul, had hated his lightness; when he was a boy, she’d shoved him under the sun, begging him to darken. Maybe that’s what made him first dream of the town. Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift. He’d married a mulatto even lighter than himself. She was pregnant then with their first child, and he imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before. Soon others came. Soon idea and place became inseparable, and Mallard carried throughout the rest of St. Landry Parish. Colored people whispered about it, wondered about it. White people couldn’t believe it even existed. When St. Catherine’s was built in 1938, the diocese sent over a young priest from Dublin who arrived certain that he was lost. Didn’t the bishop tell him that Mallard was a colored town? Well, who were these people walking about? Fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek? Was this who counted for colored in America, who whites wanted to keep separate? Well, how could they ever tell the difference? By the time the Vignes twins were born, Alphonse Decuir was dead, long gone. But his great-great-great-granddaughters inherited his legacy, whether they wanted to or not. Even Desiree, who complained before every Founder’s Day picnic, who rolled her eyes when the founder was mentioned in school, as if none of that business had anything to do with her. This would stick after the twins disappeared. How Desiree never wanted to be a part of the town that was her birthright. How she felt that you could flick away history like shrugging a hand off your shoulder. You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both. And yet, if Alphonse Decuir could have strolled through the town he’d once imagined, he would have been thrilled by the sight of his great-great-great-granddaughters. Twin girls, creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair. He would have marveled at them. For the child to be a little more perfect than the parents. What could be more wonderful than that? * * * — THE VIGNES TWINS vanished on August 14, 1954, right after the Founder’s Day dance, which, everyone realized later, had been their plan all along. Stella, the clever one, would have predicted that the town would be distracted. Sun-drunk from the long barbecue in the town square, where Willie Lee, the butcher, smoked racks of ribs and brisket and hot links. Then the speech by Mayor Fontenot, Father Cavanaugh blessing the food, the children already fidgety, picking flecks of crispy chicken skin from plates held by praying parents. A long afternoon of celebration while the band played, the night ending in a dance in the school gymnasium, where the grown folks stumbled home after too many cups of Trinity Thierry’s rum punch, the few hours back in that gym pulling them tenderly toward their younger selves. On any other night, Sal Delafosse might have peeked out his window to see two girls walking under moonlight. Adele Vignes would have heard the floorboards creak. Even Lou LeBon, closing down the diner, might have seen the twins through the foggy glass panes. But on Founder’s Day, Lou’s Egg House closed early. Sal, feeling suddenly spry, rocked to sleep with his wife. Adele snored through her cups of rum punch, dreaming of dancing with her husband at homecoming. No one saw the twins sneak out, exactly how they’d intended. The idea hadn’t been Stella’s at all—during that final summer, it was Desiree who’d decided to run away after the picnic. Which should not have been surprising, perhaps. Hadn’t she, for years, told anyone who would listen that she couldn’t wait to leave Mallard? Mostly she’d told Stella, who indulged her with the patience of a girl long used to hearing delusions. To Stella, leaving Mallard seemed as fantastical as flying to China. Technically possible, but that didn’t mean that she could ever imagine herself doing it. But Desiree had always fantasized about life outside of this little farm town. When the twins saw Roman Holiday at the nickel theater in Opelousas, she’d barely been able to hear the dialogue over the other colored kids in the balcony, rowdy and bored, tossing popcorn at the white people sitting below. But she’d pressed against the railing, transfixed, imagining herself gliding above the clouds to some far-off place like Paris or Rome. She’d never even been to New Orleans, only two hours away. “Only thing waitin for you out there is wildness,” her mother always said, which of course made Desiree want to go even more. The twins knew a girl named Farrah Thibodeaux who, a year ago, had fled to the city and it sounded so simple. How hard could leaving be if Farrah, one year older than they, had done it? Desiree imagined herself escaping into the city and becoming an actress. She’d only starred in one play in her life—Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade—but when she’d taken center stage, she’d felt, for a second, that maybe Mallard wasn’t the dullest town in America. Her classmates cheering for her, Stella receding into the darkness of the gym, Desiree feeling like only herself for once, not a twin, not one half of an incomplete pair. But the next year, she’d lost the role of Viola in Twelfth Night to the mayor’s daughter, after her father had made a last-second donation to the school, and after an evening sulking in the stage wing as Mary Lou Fontenot beamed and waved to the crowd, she told her sister that she could not wait to leave Mallard. “You always say that,” Stella said. “Because it’s always true.” But it wasn’t, not really. She didn’t hate Mallard as much as she felt trapped by its smallness. She’d trampled the same dirt roads her entire life; she’d carved her initials on the bottom of school desks that her mother had once used, and that her children would someday, feeling her jagged scratching with their fingers. And the school was in the same building it’d always been, all the grades together, so that even moving up to Mallard High hadn’t felt like a progression at all, just a step across the hallway. Maybe she would have been able to endure all this if it weren’t for everyone’s obsession with lightness. Syl Guillory and Jack Richard arguing in the barber shop about whose wife was fairer, or her mother yelling after her to always wear a hat, or people believing ridiculous things, like drinking coffee or eating chocolate while pregnant might turn a baby dark. Her father had been so light that, on a cold morning, she could turn his arm over to see the blue of his veins. But none of that mattered when the white men came for him, so how could she care about lightness after that? She barely remembered him now; it scared her a little. Life before he died seemed like only a story she’d been told. A time when her mother hadn’t risen at dawn to clean white people’s houses or taken in extra washing on the weekends, clotheslines zigzagging across their living room. The twins used to love hiding behind the quilts and sheets before Desiree realized how humiliating it was, your home always filled with strangers’ dirty things. “If it was true, then you’d do something about it,” Stella said. She was always so practical. On Sunday nights, Stella ironed her clothes for the entire week, unlike Desiree, who rushed around each morning to find a clean dress and finish the homework crushed in the bottom of her book bag. Stella liked school. She’d earned top marks in arithmetic since kindergarten, and during her sophomore year, Mrs. Belton even allowed her to teach a few classes to the younger grades. She’d given Stella a worn calculus textbook from her own Spelman days, and for weeks, Stella lay in bed trying to decipher the odd shapes and long strings of numbers nestled in parentheses. Once, Desiree flipped through the book, but the equations spanned like an ancient language and Stella snatched the book back, as if by looking at it, Desiree had sullied it somehow. Stella wanted to become a schoolteacher at Mallard High someday. But every time Desiree imagined her own future in Mallard, life carrying on forever as it always had, she felt something clawing at her throat. When she mentioned leaving, Stella never wanted to talk about it. “We can’t leave Mama,” she always said, and, chastened, Desiree fell silent. She’s already lost so much, was the part that never needed to be said. * * * — ON THE LAST DAY of tenth grade, their mother came home from work and announced that the twins would not be returning to school in the fall. They’d had enough schooling, she said, easing gingerly onto the couch to rest her feet, and she needed them to work. The twins were sixteen then and stunned, although maybe Stella should have noticed the bills that arrived more frequently, or Desiree should have wondered why, in the past month alone, their mother had sent her to Fontenot’s twice to ask for more credit. Still, the girls stared at each other in silence as their mother unlaced her shoes. Stella looked like she’d been socked in the gut. “But I can work and go to school too,” she said. “I’ll find a way—” “You can’t, honey,” her mother said. “You gotta be there during the day. You know I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t need to.” “I know, but—” “And Nancy Belton got you teachin the class. What more do you need to learn?” She had already found them a job cleaning a house in Opelousas and they would start in the morning. Desiree hated helping her mother clean. Plunging her hands into dirty dishwater, stooping over mops, knowing that someday, her fingers would also grow fat and gnarled from scrubbing white folks’ clothes. But at least there would be no more tests or studying or memorizing, no more listening to lectures, bored to tears. She was an adult now. Finally, life would really begin. But as the twins started dinner, Stella remained silent and glum, rinsing carrots under the sink. “I thought—” she said. “I guess I just thought—” She wanted to go to college someday and of course she’d get into Spelman or Howard or wherever else she wanted to go. The thought had always terrified Desiree, Stella moving to Atlanta or D.C. without her. A small part of her felt relieved; now Stella couldn’t possibly leave her behind. Still, she hated to see her sister sad. “You could still go,” Desiree said. “Later, I mean.” “How? You have to finish high school first.” “Well, you can do that then. Night classes or somethin. You’ll finish in no time, you know you will.” Stella grew quiet again, chopping carrots for the stew. She knew how desperate their mother was and would never fight her on her decision. But she was so rattled that her knife slipped and she cut her finger instead. “Damn it!” she whispered loudly, startling Desiree beside her. Stella hardly ever swore, especially not where their mother might overhear. She dropped the knife, a thin red line of blood seeping out her index finger, and without thinking, Desiree stuck Stella’s bleeding finger in her own mouth, like she’d done when they were little and Stella wouldn’t stop crying. She knew they were far too old for this now, but she still kept Stella’s finger in her mouth, tasting her metallic blood. Stella watched her silently. Her eyes looked wet, but she wasn’t crying. “That’s nasty,” Stella said, but she didn’t pull away. * * * — ALL SUMMER, the twins rode the morning bus into Opelousas, where they reported to a giant white house hidden behind iron gates topped with white marble lions. The display seemed so theatrically absurd that Desiree laughed when she first saw them, but Stella only stared warily, as if those lions might spring to life at any moment and maul her. When their mother found them the job, Desiree knew the family would be rich and white. But she’d never expected a house like this: a diamond chandelier dripping from a ceiling so high, she had to climb to the top of the ladder to dust it; a long spiraling staircase that made her dizzy as she traced a rag along the banister; a large kitchen she mopped, passing appliances that looked so futuristic and new, she could not even tell how to use them. Sometimes she lost Stella and had to search for her, wanting to call her name but afraid to send her voice echoing off the ceilings. Once, she’d found her polishing the bedroom dresser, staring off into the vanity mirror adorned by tiny bottles of lotions, wistfully, as if she wanted to sit on that plush bench and rub scented cream onto her hands like Audrey Hepburn might. Admire herself for the sake of it, as if she lived in a world where women did such a thing. But then Desiree’s reflection appeared behind her, and Stella looked away, ashamed, almost, to be seen wanting anything at all. The family was called the Duponts. A wife with feathery blonde hair who sat around all afternoon, heavy-lidded and bored. A husband who worked at St. Landry Bank & Trust. Two boys shoving each other in front of the color television set—she’d never seen one before—and a colicky, bald baby. On their first day, Mrs. Dupont studied the twins a minute, then said absently to her husband, “What pretty girls. So light, aren’t they?” Mr. Dupont just nodded. He was an awkward, fumbling man who wore Coke-bottle glasses with lenses so thick his eyes turned into beads. Whenever he passed Desiree, he tilted his head, as if he were quizzing himself. “Which one are you again?” he’d ask. “Stella,” she sometimes told him, just for fun. She’d always been a great liar. The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same. Stella never wanted to switch places. She was always certain that they would get caught, but lying—or acting—was only possible if you committed fully. Desiree had spent years studying Stella. The way she played with her hem, how she tucked her hair behind her ear or gazed up hesitantly before saying hello. She could mirror her sister, mimic her voice, inhabit her body in her own. She felt special, knowing that she could pretend to be Stella but Stella could never be her. All summer, the twins were out of sight. No girls walking along Partridge Road or sliding into a back booth at Lou’s or heading to the football field to watch the boys practice. Each morning, the twins disappeared inside the Duponts’ house and in the evening, they emerged exhausted, feet swollen, Desiree slumping against the bus window during the ride home. Summer was nearly over and she couldn’t bring herself to imagine autumn, scrubbing bathroom floors while her friends gossiped in the lunchroom and planned homecoming dances. Would this be the rest of her life? Constricted to a house that swallowed her as soon as she stepped inside? There was one way out. She knew it—she’d always known it—but by August, she was thinking about New Orleans relentlessly. The morning of Founder’s Day, already dreading returning to the Duponts’, she nudged Stella across the bed and said, “Let’s go.” Stella groaned, rolling over, the sheets knotted around her ankles. She’d always been a wild sleeper, prone to nightmares she never talked about. “Where?” Stella said. “You know where. I’m tired of talkin about it, let’s just go.” She was beginning to feel as if an escape door had appeared before her, and if she waited any longer, it might disappear forever. But she couldn’t go without Stella. She’d never been without her sister and part of her wondered if she could even survive the separation. “Come on,” she said. “Do you wanna be cleanin after the Duponts forever?” She would never know for sure what did it. Maybe Stella was also bored. Maybe, practical as she was, Stella recognized that they could earn more money in New Orleans, send it home and help Mama better that way. Or maybe she’d seen that escape door vanishing too and realized that everything she wanted existed outside of Mallard. Who cared why she changed her mind? All that mattered was that Stella finally said, “Okay.” All afternoon, the twins lingered at the Founder’s Day picnic, Desiree feeling like she might burst open from carrying their secret. But Stella seemed just as calm as usual. She was the only person Desiree ever shared her secrets with. Stella knew about the tests Desiree had failed, how she’d forged her mother’s signature on the back instead of showing her. She knew about all the knickknacks Desiree had stolen from Fontenot’s—a tube of lipstick, a pack of buttons, a silver cuff link— because she could, because it felt nice, when the mayor’s daughter fluttered past, knowing that she had taken something from her. Stella listened, sometimes judged, but never told, and that was the part that mattered most. Telling Stella a secret was like whispering into a jar and screwing the lid tight. Nothing escaped her. But she hadn’t imagined then that Stella was keeping secrets of her own. Days after the Vignes twins left Mallard, the river flooded, turning all the roads to muck. If they’d waited a day longer, the storm would’ve flushed them out. If not rain, then the mud. They would’ve trudged halfway down Partridge Road, then thought, forget it. They weren’t tough girls. Wouldn’t have lasted five miles down a muddy country road—they would’ve returned home, drenched, and fallen asleep in their beds, Desiree admitting that she’d been impulsive, Stella that she was only being loyal. But it didn’t rain that night. The sky was clear when the twins left home without looking back. * * * — ON THE MORNING Desiree returned, she got herself half lost on the way to her mother’s house. Being half lost was worse than being fully lost—it was impossible to know which part of you knew the way. Partridge Road bled into the woods and then what? A turn at the river but which direction? A town always looked different once you’d returned, like a house where all the furniture had shifted three inches. You wouldn’t mistake it for a stranger’s house but you’d keep banging your shins on the table corners. She paused in the mouth of the woods, overwhelmed by all those pine trees, stretching on endlessly. She tried to search for anything familiar, fiddling with her scarf. Through the gauzy blue fabric, you could barely see the bruise. “Mama?” Jude said. “We almost there?” She was gazing up at Desiree with those big moon eyes, looking so much like Sam that Desiree glanced away. “Yes,” she said. “Almost.” “How much more?” “Just a little while, baby. It’s right through these woods. Mama’s just catchin her bearings, that’s all.” The first time Sam hit her, Desiree started to think about returning home. They’d been married three years then, but she still felt like they were honeymooners. Sam still made her shiver when he licked icing off her finger or kissed her neck while she pouted into her lipstick. Washington, D.C., had started to feel like a type of home, where she might be able to imagine the rest of her life playing out without Stella in it. Then, one spring night, six years ago, she’d forgotten to sew a button on his shirt, and when he reminded her, she told him that she was too busy cooking dinner, he’d have to sew it himself. She was tired from work; it was late enough that she could hear The Ed Sullivan Show in the living room, Diahann Carroll trilling “It Had to Be You.” She lowered the chicken into the oven, and when she turned, Sam’s hand smashed hot against her mouth. She was twenty-four years old. She had never been slapped in the face before. “Leave him,” her friend Roberta told her over the phone. “You stay, he thinks he can get away with it.” “It ain’t that simple,” Desiree said. She glanced toward her baby’s room, touching her swollen lip. She suddenly imagined Stella’s face, her own but unbruised. “Why?” Roberta said. “You love him? And he loves you so much, he knocked your head off your shoulders?” “It wasn’t that bad,” she said. “And you aim to stick around until it is?” By the time Desiree found the nerve to leave, she hadn’t spoken to Stella since she’d passed over. She had no way to reach her and didn’t even know where she lived now. Still, weaving through Union Station, her daughter confused and clinging to her arm, she only wanted to call her sister. Hours earlier, in the middle of another argument, Sam had grabbed her by the throat and aimed his handgun at her face, his eyes as clear as the first time he’d kissed her. He would kill her someday. She knew this even after he released her and she rolled, gasping, onto her side. That night, she pretended to fall asleep beside him, then, for the second time in her life, she packed a bag in darkness. At the train station, she raced to the ticket counter with the cash she’d stolen from Sam’s wallet, gripping her daughter’s hand, breathing so hard her stomach hurt. What now, she asked Stella in her head. Where do I go? But of course, Stella didn’t answer. And of course, there was only one place to go. “How much more?” Jude asked. “A little bit, baby. We almost there.” Almost home, but what did that mean anymore? Her mother might cast her out before she even reached the front steps. She would take one look at Jude before pointing them back down the road. Of course that dark man beat you. What you expect? A spite marriage don’t last. She stooped to pick up her daughter, hoisting her onto her hip. She was walking now without thinking, just to keep her body moving. Maybe it was a mistake to return to Mallard. Maybe they should have gone somewhere new, started over fresh. But it was too late now for regrets. She could already hear the river. She started toward it, her daughter hanging heavy around her neck. The river would right her. She would stand on the bank and remember the way. * * * — IN D.C., Desiree Vignes had learned to read fingerprints. She had never even known that this was something you could learn until the spring of 1956, when walking down Canal Street, she spotted a flyer tacked outside a bakery window announcing that the federal government was hiring. She’d paused in the doorway, staring at the poster. Stella had been gone six months then, time falling in a slow, steady drip. She would forget sometimes, as strange as it sounded. She would hear a funny joke on the streetcar or pass a friend they once knew and she would turn to tell Stella, “Hey did you—” before remembering that she was gone. That she had left Desiree, for the first time ever, alone. And yet, even after six months, Desiree still held out hope. Stella would call. She would send a letter. But each evening, she groped inside the empty mailbox and waited beside a phone that refused to ring. Stella had gone on to craft a new life without her in it, and Desiree was miserable living in the city where Stella abandoned her. So she’d written down the number from the yellow flyer pressed against the bakery window and she went to the recruitment office as soon as she got off from work. The recruiter, skeptical that she’d find anyone of good character in that whole city, was surprised by the neat young woman sitting in front of her. She glanced at her application, stumbling where the girl had marked colored. Then she tapped her pen on the box labeled hometown. “Mallard,” she said. “I’ve never heard of the place.” “It’s just a little town,” Desiree said. “North of here.” “Mr. Hoover likes small towns. The best folks come from small towns, he always says.” “Well,” Desiree said, “Mallard is as small town as it gets.” * * * — IN D.C., she tried to bury her grief. She rented a room from the other colored woman in the fingerprinting department, Roberta Thomas. More a basement than a room, actually—dark and windowless but clean, and most importantly, affordable. “It ain’t much,” Roberta told her on her first day of work. “But if you really need a place.” She’d offered tentatively, as if she were hoping Desiree might turn her down. She was exhausted, three children and all, and honestly, Desiree just seemed like another to take care of. But she pitied the girl, barely eighteen, alone in a new city, so the basement it was: a single bed, a dresser, the radiator rattling her to sleep each night. Desiree told herself that she was starting over but she thought of Stella even more now, wondering what she would make of this city. She’d left New Orleans to escape the memory of her but she still couldn’t fall asleep without rolling over to feel for Stella in bed beside her. At the Bureau, Desiree learned arches and loops and whorls. A radial loop, flowing toward the thumb, versus an ulnar loop, flowing toward the pinky. A central pocket loop whorl from a double loop whorl. A young finger from an old one whose ridges were worn down with age. She could identify one person out of a million by studying a ridge: its width, shape, pores, contour, breaks, and creases. On her desk each morning: fingerprints lifted from stolen cars and bullet casings, broken windows and door handles and knives. She processed the fingerprints of antiwar protesters and identified the remains of dead soldiers arriving home wedged on dry ice. She was studying fingerprints lifted from a stolen gun the first time Sam Winston walked past. He wore a lavender tie with a matching silk handkerchief, and she was shocked by the brightness of the tie and the boldness of the jet-black brother who’d found the nerve to wear it. Later, when she saw him eating lunch with the other attorneys, she turned to Roberta and said, “I didn’t know there were colored prosecutors.” Roberta snorted. “Of course there is,” she said. “This ain’t that down poke town you come from.” Roberta had never heard of Mallard. Nobody outside of St. Landry Parish had, and when Desiree told Sam, he struggled to even imagine it. “You’re jivin,” he said. “A whole town of folks as light as you?” He’d invited her to lunch one afternoon, leaning over her cubicle after he’d stopped by to ask about a set of fingerprints. Later, he told her that he hadn’t been so desperate about those prints at all, he’d just wanted to find a reason to introduce himself. Now they were sitting in the National Arboretum, watching ducks glide over the pond. “Lighter even,” she said, thinking about Mrs. Fontenot, who’d always boasted that her children were the color of clabber. Sam laughed. “Well, you gotta bring me down there sometime,” he said. “I gotta see this light-skinned city for myself.” But he was only flirting. He was born in Ohio and had never ventured south of Virginia. His mother had wanted to send him to Morehouse but no, he was a Buckeye back before all the dormitories desegregated. He’d sat in classrooms where white professors refused to answer his questions. He’d scraped piss-yellow snow off his windshield each winter. Dated light girls who would not hold his hand in public. Northern racism, he knew. That southern kind, you could keep. As far as he was concerned, his folks had escaped the South for a reason and who was he to question their judgment? Those rednecks probably wouldn’t even let him come home, he always joked. He might go down to visit and wind up chopping cotton. “You wouldn’t like Mallard,” she told him. “Why not?” “Because. They funny down there. Colorstruck. That’s why I left.” Not exactly, although she wanted him to believe that she was nothing like the place she’d come from. She wanted him to believe anything beside the truth: that she was only young and bored and she’d dragged her sister to a city where she’d lost herself. He was quiet a minute, considering this, then he tilted the bag of breadcrumbs toward her. He had been ripping up the crust of his sandwich so she could feed the ducks, the type of subtle gallantry she would learn to love about him. She smiled, dipping her hand inside. She told him that she had never been with a man like him before, but the truth was, she had never really been with a man at all. So she was surprised and delighted by every little thing he did: Sam escorting her into restaurants with white tablecloths and ornate silverware; Sam inviting her to the theater, surprising her with tickets to see Ella Fitzgerald. When he brought her home the first time, she’d wandered around his bachelor’s apartment, amazed by his neat linens, his color-coded wardrobe, his big spacious bed. She’d nearly cried when she’d returned to Roberta’s basement after that. He would never again offer to visit home with her. She would never ask him to. She’d told him in the beginning that she hated Mallard. “I don’t believe you,” he said. They were lying in his bed, listening to the rain. “What’s there to believe? I told you how I feel.” “Negroes always love our hometowns,” he said. “Even though we’re always from the worst places. Only white folks got the freedom to hate home.” He was raised in the projects of Cleveland and he loved that city with the fierceness of someone who hadn’t been given much to love. She’d only been given a town she’d always wanted to escape and a mother who’d made it clear that she was not welcomed back. She hadn’t told Sam about Stella yet—it seemed like another thing about Mallard that he wouldn’t understand. But as rain splattered against the metal fire escape, she turned toward him and said that she had a twin sister who’d decided to become someone else. “She’ll get tired of all that playacting,” he said. “Bet she comes running back, feeling foolish. You’re way too sweet for anyone to stay away.” He kissed her forehead, and she held him tighter, his heart thumping against her ear. This was back in the beginning. Before his hands curled into fists, before he called her uppity yellow bitch or crazy as your sister or off thinkin you white. Back when she’d found herself starting to trust him. * * * — MANY YEARS LATER, when her eyesight would begin to fade, she would blame the years she’d spent squinting at sheets of fingerprints and marking their ridges. Roberta told her once that soon the entire fingerprinting system would be operated by machines. The Japanese were already testing out the technology. But how could a machine study a fingerprint better than the trained eye? Desiree saw patterns that most people couldn’t. She could read a person’s life off his fingertips. During training, she’d practiced reading her own fingerprints, those intricate designs that marked her as unique. Stella had a scar on her left index finger from when she’d cut herself with a knife, one of many ways that their fingerprints were different. Sometimes who you were came down to the small things. * * * — ADELE VIGNES LIVED in a white shotgun house that lurked on the edge of the woods, a house first built by the founder and inhabited by generations of Decuirs ever since. When she’d first married, her new husband, Leon Vignes, had wandered down the hall, inspecting the ancient furniture. He was a repairman who wanted to be a woodworker and he ran a finger along the slender table legs, admiring the craftsmanship. He’d never expected to one day live in a home imbued with so much history, but then again, he’d never expected to marry a Decuir girl. A girl with Heritage. He could trace his own family to a long line of French winegrowers who’d hoped to build a vineyard in the New World before discovering that Louisiana was too hot and humid for grapes and settled instead for sugarcane. Big thinking crushed by reality—that’s what he’d inherited. His own parents had set their sights more reasonably; they’d run a speakeasy on the edge of Mallard called the Surly Goat. The more pious in Mallard would later trace the tragedies to that sinful business: four Vignes brothers, none of whom lived past thirty. Leon, the runt of the litter, the first to die. The house had faded with time but, somehow, still seemed exactly as Desiree had remembered it. She stepped into the clearing, gripping her own daughter tighter, shoulders stinging with each step. Those brass columns, teal roof, the narrow front porch where her mother was sitting on a rocking chair, snapping green beans into a bowl of water. Her mother still slight, her hair trailing down her back, temples now tinted gray. Desiree paused, her daughter hanging heavy from her neck. The years pushing her back like a hand to her chest. “Wonderin when y’all would make it out here. You know Lou already called, sayin he seen you.” Her mother was talking to her but staring at the child in her arms. “Mighty big to be carried.” Desiree finally set her daughter down. Her back ached, but pain, at least, felt familiar. A hurting body kept you alert, awake, which was better than how numb she’d felt on the train, moving but trapped in place. She nudged her daughter forward. “Go give your Maman a kiss,” she said. “Go on, it’s all right.” Her daughter clamped around her legs, too shy to move, but she nudged her again until the girl dutifully climbed the steps, hesitating a second before she put an arm around her grandmother. Adele pulled back to get a better look at her, touching her mussed braids. “Go take a bath,” she said. “Y’all smell like outside.” In the bathroom, Desiree knelt on the cracked tile to run her daughter a bath in the clawfoot tub. She tested the water feeling, somehow, as if she were dreaming. The mirror blackened in the top corner, the chipped scalloped sink, the wooden floors creaking in the places she’d learned to avoid if she wanted to sneak in past curfew. Her mother snapping green beans on the porch, as if it were a normal morning. And yet, they hadn’t spoken since Stella left. Desiree had called home, gulping back tears, and her mother said, “You did this.” What could she even say? She was the one who’d pushed Stella to leave home in the first place. Now her sister had decided she’d rather be white and her mother blamed her because Stella was no longer there to blame. In the kitchen, she sank into a chair, realizing a moment later, that she’d sat in the same place she always had, Stella’s chair empty beside her. Her mother was busying at the stove, and for a long moment, Desiree stared at her stiffened back. “So that’s what you been up to,” her mother said. “What do you mean?” “You know what I mean.” Her mother turned, her eyes brimming with tears. “You hate us that much, don’t you?” Desiree pushed away from the table. “I knew I shouldn’t have come here—” “Sit down—” “If that’s all you got to say to me—” “What do you expect? You come from God knows where, draggin some child that don’t look one lick like you—” “We’ll go,” Desiree said. “You can be mad at me all you want, Mama, but you not gonna be nasty to my girl.” “I said sit down,” her mother said again, this time quieter. She slid a yellow square of cornbread across the table. “I’m just surprised. Can’t I be surprised?” All those times Desiree had imagined calling home. When she’d arrived in D.C., settling in Roberta’s basement, her mother with no way to reach her. Or after Sam proposed, and they took engagement photographs under the cherry blossoms. She’d slid a picture into an envelope, even addressed it, but she couldn’t bring herself to send it. Not because she was ashamed of him—that was how Sam took it—but because what was the point of sharing good news with someone who couldn’t be happy for you? She already knew what her mother would tell her. You don’t love that dark man. You’re only marrying him out of rebellion and the worst thing to give a rebelling child is attention. You’ll understand someday when you have a child of your own. After the wedding, after the cake had been cut, after their friends had wandered boozy and laughing into the streets, she’d slumped in the back of the reception hall in her frilly white dress and cried. She had never imagined that she might get married someday without her sister and mother by her side. She’d even thought about calling after she’d given birth to a baby girl at Freedmen’s Hospital. When Jude was born, the colored nurse had paused before wrapping her in a pink blanket. “It’s good luck,” she’d finally said, handing her over, “for a girl to look like her daddy.” She smiled a little after, offering reassurance to a woman she believed would need it. But Desiree stared into her baby’s face, enchanted. A different woman might have been disappointed by how little her own daughter resembled her, but she only felt grateful. The last thing she wanted was to love someone else who looked just like herself. “Would’ve fixed more if you told me you was comin,” her mother said. “It was sort of last minute,” Desiree said. She’d barely eaten on the train, nibbling on crackers and gulping black coffee until the caffeine made her jittery. She needed to plan. Mallard, and then what? Where to next? They couldn’t possibly stay here but she didn’t know where else to go. Now she stared around the aging kitchen, missing her own apartment in D.C. Her job, her friends, her life. Maybe she’d overreacted—the riots had set everyone on edge. A week ago, she’d watched Sam cry as Walter Cronkite delivered the news, holding him on the couch as he trembled in her arms. The shooter was a madman, maybe, or a military operative, or perhaps even an agent in the Bureau acting on behalf of the government. They were culpable, perhaps, complicit Negroes working for the wrong side. He was rambling and she clutched him until the broadcast ended. That night they’d made love desperately, a strange way to honor the Reverend, maybe, but she didn’t feel like herself that night, overwhelmed by grief over a man she didn’t know. In the morning, she passed ravaged storefronts with SOUL BROTHER scribbled on boarded shop windows, hasty claims of allegiance written in marker and pasted against glass. The Bureau dismissed early that day. On her walk home from the bus, a scared colored youth—scrawny as the baseball bat he was gripping—demanded her pocketbook. “Come on, you white bitch!” he screamed, slamming the bat against the pavement, as if he could drill to the center of the earth. She fumbled with her leather strap, too afraid to correct him, recognizing herself in his terror and fury, when Sam leapt in front of her, arms raised, and said, “This my woman, brother.” The teen ran off into the din. Sam swept her inside the apartment, holding her against the safety of his chest. The city lit up four nights. And on the last night, Sam gripped her naked body and whispered, “Let’s make another.” It took her a moment to realize he meant a baby. She’d hesitated. She hadn’t meant to, but the thought of another baby anchoring her to him, another baby to worry about every time Sam was in a rage—she could never have another baby with him. Of course she didn’t tell him this, but her hesitation made it clear, and later, when he’d grabbed her throat, she knew exactly why. She’d wounded him while he was still grieving. No wonder he’d gotten angry. So he liked to throw his weight around a little. Who could blame him, living in a world that refused to respect him as a man? She didn’t have to be so mouthy. She could try harder to make a peaceful home. Wasn’t this the same man who’d stood between her and an angry boy’s bat? The same man who’d loved her after her sister abandoned her and her mother refused her phone calls? Maybe it wasn’t too late. They’d only been gone two days. She could always call Sam, tell him that she’d made a mistake. She’d needed a little time to clear her head, that’s all, of course she’d never seriously meant to leave. Her mother pushed the plate toward her again. “What type of trouble you in?” she said. Desiree forced a laugh. “There’s no trouble, Mama.” “I ain’t stupid. You think I don’t know you runnin from that man of yours?” Desiree stared down at the table, her eyes welling up. Her mother poured milk onto the cornbread and mushed it with a fork, the way Desiree had eaten it as a girl. “He gone now,” her mother said. “Eat your cornbread.” * * * — LATE THAT NIGHT, over a hundred miles southeast of Mallard, Early Jones received a job offer that would alter the course of his life. He didn’t know this at the time. Any job was just that to him—a job—and when he stepped inside Ernesto’s, craning his neck for Big Ceel, he was only worried about whether he could afford a drink. He jangled the loose change in his pocket. Could never keep a dollar on him. Two weeks ago, he’d run a job for Ceel, and somehow, he’d burned through the money already on everything a young man alone in New Orleans required, card games and booze and women. Now he was desperate for another job. For the money, of course, but also because he hated being in one place for too long, and two weeks in the same place was, for him then, far too long. He wasn’t a settling man. He was only good at getting lost. He’d mastered that particular skill as a boy rooted nowhere. Spent his childhood—if you could call it that—sharecropping on farms in Janesville and Jena, down south to New Roads and Palmetto. He’d been given to his aunt and uncle when he was eight, because they had no children and his parents had too many. He did not know where his parents lived now, if they still lived, and he said that he never thought about them. “They gone,” he said, when asked. “Gone folks is gone.” But the truth is that when he’d first started hunting hiding people, he’d tried to find his folks. His failure was swift and humiliating; he didn’t know enough about his parents to even guess where to begin. Probably for the best. They hadn’t wanted him as a boy—what on earth would they do with him as a grown man? Still, his defeat nagged at him. Since he’d started hunting, his parents were the only people he had never found. The key to staying lost was to never love anything. Time and time again, Early was amazed by what a running man came back for. Women, mostly. In Jackson, he’d caught a man wanted for attempted murder because he’d circled back for his wife. You could find a new woman anywhere, but then again, the most violent men were always the most sentimental. Pure emotion, any way you look at it. What really got him were the men who returned for belongings. Too many goddamn cars to count, always some junk a man had driven for years and couldn’t part with. In Toledo, he’d caught a man who’d returned to his childhood home for an old baseball. “I don’t know, man,” he said, cuffed in the backseat of Early’s El Camino. “I just really love that thing.” Love had never dragged Early anywhere. As soon as he left a place, he forgot it. Names faded, faces blurred, buildings smudged into indistinguishable brick slabs. He forgot the names of teachers at all the schools he’d attended, the streets where he’d lived, even what his parents looked like. This was his gift, a short memory. A long memory could drive a man crazy. He’d been running jobs for Ceel, off and on, for seven years now. He never wanted anyone to think that he was working for the law. He caught criminals for one reason only—the money—and he didn’t give two shits about the white man’s justice. After he caught a man, he never wondered if the jury convicted him or if the man survived prison. He forgot him altogether. And though he’d been recognized in a bar once, and still wore the knife scars across his stomach as a souvenir, forgetting was the only way he could do his job. He liked hunting criminals. Each time Ceel approached him about a missing child or deadbeat father, Early shook his head. “Don’t know nothin bout none of those people,” he said, tilting back his whiskey. In Ernesto’s, Ceel shrugged. He had a proper office in the Seventh Ward, but Early hated meeting him there, across the street from a church, all those sanctified folks staring at him as they trampled down the steps. This bar was Early’s kind of place, a little shadowy and safe. Ceel was a hefty man, cardboard-colored with silky black hair. He carried a silver cigarette lighter that he twirled between his fingers while he talked. He’d been twirling that lighter the first time he’d approached Early, in a bar like this one, years ago. Early had listened half-heartedly, watching the light glint off the silver and dance along the bar. “Son, how’d you like to make some money?” Ceel asked. He didn’t look like a gangster or pimp but he carried the sleaziness of someone who did barely legal work. He was a bail bondsman, looking for a new bounty hunter, and he’d noticed Early. “You got a quiet way about you,” he said. “That’s good. I need a man to look and listen.” Early was twenty-four then, fresh out of prison, alone in New Orleans because he’d figured it as good a place to start over as any. He took the job because he needed the work. He’d never expected to be good at it, so good, in fact, that Ceel kept approaching him with jobs that had nothing to do with bail bonds. “You know about ’em what I tell you,” Ceel said. “And I ain’t told you nothin yet.” “Well, I don’t like to be caught up in folks’ affairs. Don’t you have nothin else for me?” Ceel laughed. “You ’bout the only man I ever hear say that. Everybody else I talk to be glad not to hunt down some mean sonofabitch for a change.” But Early could, at least, understand how a wanted man thought. The exhaustion, the desperation, the sheer selfishness of survival. The otherwise disappeared baffled him. He certainly didn’t understand married folks and had no desire to get in between them. Then again, a job was a job. Why wouldn’t he take on something light? He’d just spent two weeks tracking a man halfway to Mexico; his car broke down in the desert and he’d wondered if he would die out there, hunting a man he didn’t even care to see punished. If the money was all the same, why not say yes to an easy job for once? “I’m not grabbin her,” he said. “Nothin like that. You just call when you find her. Her old man’s lookin for her. She run off with his kid.” “What she run off for?” Ceel shrugged. “None my concern. Man wants her found. She from some little town up north called Mallard. Ever heard of it?” “Passed through as a boy,” Early said. “Funny place. Highfalutin.” He remembered little about the town, except that everyone was light and uppity, and once, at Mass, a tall pale man had slapped him for dipping his finger into the holy water font before the man’s wife. He was sixteen then, shocked by the sudden sting on his neck, as his uncle grabbed his shoulder, staring at the cracked tile floor, and apologized. He’d spent a summer in that place, working a farm on the edge of town and delivering groceries to earn extra cash. He didn’t make a single friend, but he did nurse a futile crush on a girl he’d met carrying groceries up her porch steps. He didn’t know how she even entered his mind. He was so young when they’d met; he’d barely known her; by fall, he’d moved on to another farm in another town. Still, he saw her standing barefoot in her living room, washing the windows. When Ceel slid him the photograph, Early’s stomach lurched. He almost felt as if he’d willed it. For the first time in ten years, he was staring at Desiree Vignes’s face. Two The Vignes twins left without saying good-bye, so like any sudden disappearance, their departure became loaded with meaning. Before they surfaced in New Orleans, before they were just bored girls hunting fun, it only made sense to lose them in such a tragic way. The twins had always seemed both blessed and cursed; they’d inherited, from their mother, the legacy of an entire town, and from their father, a lineage hollowed by loss. Four Vignes boys, all dead by thirty. The eldest collapsed in a chain gang from heatstroke; the second gassed in a Belgian trench; the third stabbed in a bar fight; and the youngest, Leon Vignes, lynched twice, the first time at home while his twin girls watched through a crack in the closet door, hands clamped over each other’s mouths until their palms misted with spit. That night, he was whittling a table leg when five white men kicked in the front door and hauled him outside. He landed hard on his face, his mouth filling with dirt and blood. The mob leader—a tall white man with red gold hair like a fall apple—waved a crumpled note in which, he claimed, Leon had written nasty things to a white woman. Leon couldn’t read or write—his customers knew that he made all of his marks with an X—but the white men stomped on his hands, broke every finger and joint, then shot him four times. He survived, and three days later, the white men burst into the hospital and stormed every room in the colored ward until they found him. This time, they shot him twice in the head, his cotton pillowcase blooming red. Desiree witnessed the first lynching but would forever imagine the second, how her father must have been sleeping, his head slumped, the way he nodded off in his chair after supper. How the thundering boots woke him. He screamed, or maybe had no time to, his swollen hands bandaged and useless at his sides. From the closet, she’d watched the white men drag her father out of the house, his long legs drumming against the floor. She suddenly felt that her sister would scream, so she squeezed her hand over Stella’s mouth and seconds later, felt Stella’s hand on her own. Something shifted between them in that moment. Before, Stella seemed as predictable as a reflection. But in the closet, for the first time ever, Desiree hadn’t known what her sister might do. At the wake, the twins wore matching black dresses with full slips that itched their legs. Days earlier, Bernice LeGros, the seamstress, had come by to pay her respects and found Adele Vignes trying to darn a pair of Leon’s church pants for his burial. Her hands were shaking, so Bernice took the needle and patched up the pants herself. She didn’t know how Adele would handle this on her own. Decuirs were used to soft things, to long, easy lives. The twins didn’t even have funeral dresses. The next morning, Bernice carried over a bolt of black fabric and knelt in the living room with her tape measure. She still couldn’t tell the twins apart and felt too embarrassed to ask, so she gave simple commands like “You, hand me them scissors” or “Stand up straight, honey.” She told the fidgety twin, “Stop wigglin, girl, or you gonna get sticked,” and the other twin grabbed her hand until she stilled. Unnerving, Bernice thought, glancing between the girls. Like sewing a dress for one person split into two bodies. After the burial, Bernice gathered in Adele’s crowded living room, admiring her handiwork as the twins scampered past. The fidgety twin, who she would later learn was Desiree, pulled her sister’s hand as they wove past the grown folks who huddled and whispered. Leon couldn’t have written that note—the white men must have been angered over something else and who could understand their rages? Willie Lee heard that the white men were angry that Leon stole their business by underbidding them. But how could you shoot a man for accepting less than what you asked for? “White folks kill you if you want too much, kill you if you want too little.” Willie Lee shook his head, packing tobacco into his pipe. “You gotta follow they rules but they change ’em when they feel. Devilish, you ask me.” In the bedroom, the twins sat, legs swinging over the mattress edge, and pinched at a piece of pound cake. “But what did Daddy do?” Stella kept asking. Desiree sighed, for the first time feeling the burden of having to supply answers. Oldest was oldest, even if by only seven minutes. “Like Willie Lee say. He do his job too good.” “But that don’t make sense.” “Don’t have to. It’s white folks.” As the years passed, their father would only come to her in flashes, like when she fingered a denim shirt and felt small again, pressed against the rough fabric spanning her father’s chest. You were supposed to be safe in Mallard—that strange, separate town—hidden amongst your own. But even here, where nobody married dark, you were still colored and that meant that white men could kill you for refusing to die. The Vignes twins were reminders of this, tiny girls in funeral dresses who grew up without a daddy because white men decided that it would be so. Then they grew older and just became girls, striking in both their sameness and differences. Soon it became laughable that there had ever been a time when no one could tell the twins apart. Desiree, always restless, as if her foot had been nailed to the ground and she couldn’t stop yanking it; Stella, so calm that even Sal Delafosse’s ornery horse never bucked around her. Desiree starring in the school play once, nearly twice if the Fontenots hadn’t bribed the principal; Stella, whip smart, who would go to college if her mother could afford it. Desiree and Stella, Mallard’s girls. As they grew, they no longer seemed like one body split in two, but two bodies poured into one, each pulling it her own way. * * * — THE MORNING AFTER one of her lost daughters returned, Adele Vignes woke early to make coffee. She’d barely slept the night before. Fourteen years living alone and anything besides silence sounded foreign. She’d jolted awake at every creaking floorboard, every rustled cover, every breath. Now she shuffled across the kitchen, tightening the belt of her housecoat. A breeze floated in through the front door—Desiree leaning on the porch rail, smoke trailing past her head. She always stood like that, one leg behind the other like an egret. Or was that Stella? In her memories, the girls had gotten mixed up, their details switching places until they overlapped into a single loss. A pair. She was supposed to have a pair. And now that one had returned, the loss of the other felt sharp and new. She slid the pot of water onto the stove and turned to find the dark child standing in the doorway. “Goodness!” she said. “You about gave me a heart attack.” “I’m sorry,” the girl whispered. She was quiet. Why was she so quiet? “Can I have some water?” “May I have,” Adele said, but she filled the cup anyway. She leaned against the counter, watching the girl drink, searching her face for anything that reminded her of her daughters. But she could only see the child’s evil daddy. Hadn’t she told Desiree that a dark man would be no good to her? Hadn’t she tried to warn her all her life? A dark man would trample her beauty. He’d love it at first but like anything he desired and could never attain, he would soon grow to resent it. Now he was punishing her for it. The child set her empty cup on the counter. She looked dazed, as if she’d woken up in a foreign country. Her granddaughter. Lord, she had a granddaughter. The word seemed funny even in her own head. “Why don’t you go on and play?” Adele said. “I’ll fix us some breakfast.” “I didn’t bring nothin with me,” the girl said, probably thinking of all the toys she’d left behind. City toys, like choo choo trains driven by real motors or plastic dolls with human hair. Still, Adele went into the twins’ room, freezing a second at the sight of the mussed bed—Desiree slept on her old side—before opening the musty closet. In a cardboard box near the back, she found a corncob doll that Stella had made Desiree. The girl hesitated—the doll must have looked monstrous compared to her store-bought ones—but she carried Stella’s doll carefully into the living room. A pair. Adele used to have a pair. Healthy twin girls, her first pregnancy at that. She’d given birth in her bedroom, the snow falling so suddenly, she wasn’t sure that the midwife would make it in time. When she arrived, Madame Theroux told her how fortunate she was. There hadn’t been twins in either family line for three generations. If you’d been blessed with twins, the midwife told her, you had to serve the Marassa, the sacred twins who united heaven and earth. They were powerful but jealous child gods. You had to worship both equally—leave two candies on your altar, two sodas, two dolls. Adele, catechized at St. Catherine’s, knew that she should have been scandalized, listening to Madame Theroux talking about her heathen religion at the birth of her children, but the stories distracted her from the pain. Then Desiree appeared, and seven minutes later Stella, and she held a girl in each arm, wrinkled and pink and needing nothing but her. After the twins were born, Adele never built an altar. But later, after her girls disappeared, she wondered if she’d been arrogant. Maybe she should have just built the altar, no matter how foolish it sounded. Maybe then her daughters would have stayed. Or maybe, she alone was to blame. Maybe she’d failed to love the twins equally and that chased them away. She’d always been hardest on Desiree, who was most like her father, confident that as long as she willed good things to happen, nothing could harm her. You had to curb a willful child. If she hadn’t loved Desiree, she would have abandoned her to her own stubbornness. But then Desiree felt hated and Stella felt ignored. That was the problem: you could never love two people the exact same way. Her blessing had been doomed from the beginning, her girls as impossible to please as jealous gods. Leon was easy to love. She should have known that he wouldn’t be with her long. All of her blessings had come so easily in the beginning of her life, and she’d spent the back half losing them all. But she wouldn’t lose Desiree again. She stepped onto the creaking porch, carrying two cups of coffee. Desiree quickly stubbed out her cigarette on the banister. Adele almost laughed—grown as she was, acting like a child stealing sweets. “I thought I’d fix some breakfast,” Adele said. She handed her the mug and caught another glance at Desiree’s splotchy bruise, barely hidden behind that silly scarf. “I’m not too hungry,” Desiree said. “You gonna fall out if you don’t eat somethin.” Desiree shrugged, taking a sip. Adele could already feel her fighting to break away, like a bird beating its wings against her palms. “I can take your girl by the school later,” Adele said. “Get her all signed up.” Desiree scoffed. “Now why in the world you wanna do that?” “Well, she oughta keep on with her studies—” “Mama, we’re not stayin.” “Where you expect to go? And how you expect to get there? I bet you don’t have ten dollars in your pocket—” “I don’t know! Anywhere.” Adele pursed her lips. “You rather be anywhere than here with me.” “It’s not like that, Mama.” Desiree sighed. “I just don’t know where we oughta be right now—” “You oughta be with your family, cher,” Adele said. “Stay. You safe here.” Desiree said nothing, staring out into the woods. Overhead, the sky was awakening, fading lavender and pink, and Adele wrapped an arm around her daughter’s waist. “What you think Stella’s doin right now?” Desiree said. “I don’t,” Adele said. “Ma’am?” “I don’t think about Stella,” she said. * * * — IN MALLARD, Desiree saw Stella everywhere. Lounging by the water pump in her lilac dress, slipping a finger down her sock to scratch her ankle. Dipping into the woods to play hide-and-seek behind the trees. Stepping out of the butcher’s shop carrying chicken livers wrapped in white paper, clutching the package so tightly, she might have been holding something as precious as a secret. Stella, curly hair pinned into a ponytail, tied with a ribbon, her dresses always starched, shoes shined. A girl still, since that was the only way Desiree had ever known her. But this Stella flitted in and out of her vision. Stella leaning against a fence or pushing a cart down a Fontenot’s aisle or perching on St. Catherine’s stone steps, blowing a dandelion. When Desiree walked her daughter to her first day of school, Stella appeared behind them, fussing about the dust kicking up on her socks. Desiree tried to ignore her, squeezing Jude’s hand. “You gotta talk to people today,” she said. “I talk to people I like,” Jude said. “But you don’t know yet, who you gonna like. So you gotta be friendly to everyone, just to see.” She straightened the ruffles on her daughter’s collar. She’d spent the night before kneeling in the yard, scrubbing Jude’s clothes in the washtub. She hadn’t packed enough for either of them, and plunging her hands into the filmy water, she imagined her daughter cycling through the same four dresses until she outgrew them. Why hadn’t she made a plan? Stella would have. She would have planned to run months before she actually did, squirreling away clothes slowly, one sock at a time. Set aside money, bought train tickets, prepared a place to go. Desiree knew because Stella had done it in New Orleans. Slipped out of one life into another as easily as stepping into the next room. Near the schoolyard, beige children pressed against the fence, gawking, and Desiree gripped her daughter’s hand again. She’d laid out Jude’s nicest outfit, a white dress with a pink pinafore, socks with lace trim, and Mary Janes. “Don’t you have something brown?” her mother had asked, lingering in the doorway, but Desiree ignored her, tying pink ribbons around Jude’s braids. Bright colors looked vulgar against dark skin, everyone said, but she refused to hide her daughter in drab olive greens or grays. Now, as they paraded past the other children, she felt foolish. Maybe pink was too showy. Maybe she’d already ruined her daughter’s chances of fitting in by dressing her up like a department store doll. “Why they all lookin at me?” Jude asked. “It’s just cause you new,” Desiree said. “They just curious about you.” She smiled, trying to sound cheerful, but her daughter glanced warily toward the schoolyard. “How long we stayin out here?” she asked. Desiree knelt in front of her. “I know it’s different,” she said. “But it’s just for a little bit. Just until Mama figures some things out, okay?” “How long’s a little bit?” “I don’t know, baby,” Desiree finally said. “I don’t know.” * * * — THE SURLY GOAT rose lazily on stilts, moss trees dripping onto the reddened roof. Desiree carefully picked around the muddy pathway just to find the first dilapidated step. A small town in the shadow of an oil refinery, with no picture show or nightclub or ballpark nearby meant one thing: an abundance of bored, rough men. Marie Vignes was the only person in Mallard who hadn’t seen a problem with this. Instead, she’d turned the farmhouse her parents left her into a bar, put her four sons to work cleaning glasses and hauling kegs, and on occasion breaking up fights. She’d planned to leave the bar someday to one of her sons, but by the time she died, they were all gone. The twins rarely saw her after their father’s funeral. Their mother had never wanted anything to do with that speakeasy or the unrefined woman it belonged to. The two women had been polite enough when Leon was there to smooth things over, but now that he was gone, there was no space for both of them and their grief. So the twins only heard stories about how Marie Vignes used to serve whiskey to the roughest men in Mallard, how she kept a shotgun under the bar that she named Nat King Cole, and when the roughnecks started shoving over a game of poker or fighting about a woman, she’d pull out ol’ Nat and those angry men, normally unmoved by a woman in a housedress, turned as docile as altar boys. But when Desiree stepped inside the Surly Goat for the first time, she felt almost disappointed. She’d always imagined the bar as a magical place that would, somehow, remind her more of her father. Instead, it was nothing but a country dive. She was at a bar in the middle of the afternoon because she couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. She’d spent the morning jostling in the front seat of Willie Lee’s truck all the way to Opelousas. She wanted to apply for a job, she told him when she’d spotted him outside his shop, loading his truck for deliveries. Could he give her a ride into town? As the meat truck pulled farther from Mallard, she was thinking still about her daughter, glancing back at her as she’d disappeared inside the schoolhouse. Those thin shoulders, hands clenched tight at her sides. “Where you need me to drop you off?” Willie Lee had asked. “Just at the sheriff’s.” “The sheriff’s?” He turned to look at her. “What business you got down there?” “Told you. A job.” He grunted. “You can find cleanin work closer to Mallard.” “Not to clean.” “Then what you aim to do at the sheriff’s?” “Apply to be a fingerprint examiner,” she said. Willie Lee laughed. “So you just gonna walk in there and say what?” “That I want a job application. I don’t know why you’re laughing, Willie Lee. I been examining fingerprints for over ten years now and if I can do it for the Bureau, I don’t know why I can’t do it here.” “I can think of a few reasons,” Willie Lee told her. But hadn’t the world changed a little since she’d been gone? And hadn’t she walked into the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Department with all the confidence in the world? She had stepped right inside that grimy tan building, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and told the sheriff’s deputy, a portly man with sandy blond hair, that she wanted to apply for a job. “The Federal Bureau, did you say?” he’d asked, raising an eyebrow, and she allowed herself to feel hopeful. She sat in the corner of the waiting room, racing through the latent print examiner test, grateful for a thinking activity for once, not the type of thinking she had done lately—logistics, like how long her money would last—but real analytical thinking. She’d finished quick, the deputy said, laughing a bit in amazement, might have been a record. He pulled out the answer guide from a manila folder to check her work. But first, he glanced at her full application, and when he saw her address listed in Mallard, his gaze frosted over. He slid the answer key back in the folder, returned to his chair. “Leave that there, gal,” he said. “No use wasting my time.” Now she stepped inside the Surly Goat, passing under the welcome sign—COLD WOMEN! HOT BEER!—and pressed past a row of men in greasy coveralls to find an empty booth. “Well, look what the cat drug in,” Lorna Hebert, the old barmaid, said. She dropped off a shot of whiskey that Desiree hadn’t even asked for. “You don’t look too surprised to see me,” Desiree said. She’d been in town two days by now, of course everyone knew. “Got to come home sometime,” Lorna said. “Now let me get a good look at you.” In the darkness of the bar, she was still wearing her blue scarf. If Lorna noticed anything, she didn’t say so. She disappeared back behind the bar and Desiree downed the shot, comforted by the burn. She felt pathetic, drinking alone in the middle of the day, but what else could she do? She needed a job. Money. A plan. But those children staring at her daughter. The deputy dismissing her. Sam gripping her throat. She waved over Lorna again, wanting to forget it all. One shot then another and she was already tipsy by the time she saw him. He was sitting at the end of the bar wearing a worn brown leather jacket, a dirty boot kicked up on the stool. The man beside him said something that made him smile into his whiskey. Those high cheekbones pierced her. Even after all those years, she would know Early Jones anywhere. * * * — HER LAST SUMMER in Mallard, Desiree Vignes met the wrong sort of boy. She’d spent her life, up until then, only meeting the right sort: Mallard boys, light and ambitious, boys tugging on her pigtails, boys sitting beside her in catechism, mumbling the Apostles’ Creed, boys begging her for kisses outside of school dances. She was supposed to marry one of these boys, and when Johnny Heroux left heart-shaped notes in her history book or Gil Dalcourt asked her to homecoming, she could practically feel her mother nudging her toward them. Pick one, pick one. It only made her want to dig her heels into the ground. Nothing made a boy less exciting than the fact that you were supposed to like him. Mallard boys seemed as familiar and safe as cousins, but there were no other boys around except when someone’s nephew visited or when tenant farmers moved to the edge of town. She’d never spoken to one of these tenant boys—she only saw them when they passed through town, tall and sinewy and caked brown. They looked like men, these boys, so what could you talk to them about? Besides, you weren’t supposed to speak to dark boys. Once, one had tipped his hat at her and her mother tutted, gripping her arm tighter. “Don’t even look his way,” her mother said. “Boys like that don’t want nothin good.” Dark boys in Mallard only wanted to go girl hunting, her mother always said. They wanted to give it to a white girl but couldn’t, so they thought a light girl was the next best thing. But Desiree had never met a dark boy until one June evening when she was washing the living-room windows and spotted, through the hazy glass, a boy standing on the front porch. A tall boy, shirtless in overalls, his skin caramelized into a deep brown. He held a paper bag in one arm and took a bite from a purplish fruit, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “You gonna let me in?” he said. He was gazing at her so directly, she blushed. “No,” she said. “Who’re you?” “Who you think?” he said. He turned the bag toward her so that she could see the Fontenot’s logo. “Open the door.” “I don’t know you,” she said. “You could be an ax murderer.” “Look like I got an ax on me?” “Maybe I can’t see it from here.” He could’ve left the bag on the porch. When he didn’t, she realized that they were flirting. She dropped her rag on the windowsill, watching him chew. “What you eatin anyway?” she asked. “Come see.” She finally unlatched the screen door and stepped barefoot onto the porch. Early eased toward her. He smelled like sandalwood and sweat, and as he neared, she thought, for one breathless second, that he might kiss her. But he didn’t. He lifted his fig to her lips. She bit where his mouth had been. * * * — LATER, SHE LEARNED HIS NAME, which wasn’t even a name at all, although it made her smile when she rolled it around her mouth. Early, Early, like she was calling out the time. All month, he left fruit like flowers. Each evening when the twins came home from the Duponts, she found a plum on the porch banister, or a peach, or a napkin filled with blackberries. Nectarines and pears and rhubarb, more fruit than she could finish, fruit she hid in her apron to savor later or bake into pies. Sometimes he passed by in the evening on his way to deliver groceries, lingering on her porch steps. He told her that he made deliveries part time; the rest of his days were spent helping his aunt and uncle on a farm near the edge of town. But when the harvest ended, he planned to skip off and find himself in a real city like New Orleans. “Don’t you think your folks’ll miss you?” Desiree said. “When you go?” He scoffed. “The money,” he said. “They gonna miss that. That’s all they thinkin about.” “Well, you got to think about money,” Desiree said. “That’s how all grown folks are.” Who would her mother be if she wasn’t worried about money all the time? Like Mrs. Dupont, maybe, drifting around the house dreamily. But Early shook his head. “It’s not the same,” he said. “Your mama got a house. All y’all got this whole dern town. We got nothin. That’s why I give this fruit away. Don’t belong to me nohow.” She reached for a blueberry in his napkin. By now, she’d already eaten so many, her fingertips were stained purple. “So if all this fruit belonged to you,” she said, “you wouldn’t give me nothin?” “If it belonged to me,” he said, “I’d give you all of it.” Then he kissed the inside of her wrist, and her palm, and slipped her pinky inside his mouth, tasting the fruit on her skin. * * * — A DARK BOY stepping through the meadow behind the house to leave her fruit. She never knew when Early would come, if he would come at all, so she began waiting for him, sitting along the porch rail as the sun faded. Stella warned her to be careful. Stella was always careful. “I know you don’t wanna hear it,” she said. “But you hardly know him and he sounds fresh.” But Desiree didn’t care. He was the first interesting boy she’d ever met, the only one who even imagined a life outside of Mallard. And maybe she liked that Stella distrusted him. She never wanted the two to meet. He would grin, glancing between the girls, searching for differences amongst their similarities. She hated that silent appraisal, watching someone compare her to a version that she might have been. A better version, even. What if he saw something in Stella that he liked more? It would have nothing to do with looks, and that, somehow, felt even worse. She could never date him. He knew this too even though they never talked about it. He only came by the porch while her mother was still at work, always leaving as soon as the sky grew dark. Still, one evening her mother came home from work and caught her talking to Early. He leapt off the railing, the blackberries in his lap scattering to the deck like buckshot. “Best be goin now,” her mother said. “I don’t have no courtin girls here.” He raised his hands in surrender, as if he too felt that he had done something wrong. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said. He shuffled off into the woods, not looking at Desiree. She miserably watched him disappear between the trees. “Why’d you have to do that, Mama?” she said. But her mother ushered her inside. “You’ll thank me someday,” she said. “You think you know everything? Girl, you don’t know how this world can be.” And maybe her mother was right about the world’s immeasurable cruelties. She had already been dealt her portion; she could see that Desiree’s was on its way and did not want a dark boy to hasten it. Or maybe her mother was just like everyone else who found dark skin ugly and strove to distance herself from it. Either way, Early Jones never visited again. Desiree wondered about him while she cleaned at the Duponts. She lingered in Fontenot’s on Saturday afternoons even though she had nothing to buy, hoping to catch a glimpse of him hauling groceries down the road. When she finally asked, Mr. Fontenot told her that the boy’s family had moved on to another farm. And what would she have told Early if she knew how to reach him? That she was sorry for what her mother said? Or for what she hadn’t said in his defense? That she wasn’t like the folks she’d come from, although she wasn’t sure that was even true anymore. You couldn’t separate the shame from being caught doing something from the shame of the act itself. If she hadn’t believed, even a bit, that spending time with Early was wrong, why hadn’t she ever asked him to meet her at Lou’s for a malt? Or take a walk or sit out by the riverbank? She was probably no different from her mother in Early’s eyes. That’s why he’d left town without saying good-bye. * * * — NOW EARLY JONES was back in Mallard, no longer a reedy boy carrying fruit in his tattered shirt but a grown man. Before she could think, she was pushing unsteadily to her feet and starting toward him. He glanced over his shoulder, his brown skin shining under the dull light. He didn’t seem surprised to see her, and for a second, he gave her a little smile. For a second, she felt like a girl again, unsure of what to say. “I thought it was you,” she finally said. “Course it’s me,” he said. “Who else would it be?” He was, in a way, exactly how she’d remembered him, tall and leanly muscled like a wild cat. But even in the hazy bar, she could read hard years in his eyes, and his weariness startled her. He scratched the scruff on his chin, waving over Lorna and pointing lazily to Desiree’s glass. “What on earth you doin here?” she said. Mallard was the last place she would ever have imagined seeing him again. “I’m just in town for a spell,” he said. “Got a little business to tend to.” “What type of business?” “You know. This and that.” He smiled again, but there was something unsettling about it. He glanced down at her left hand. “So which one is your husband?” he said, nodding toward the roomful of men. She’d forgotten that she was still wearing her wedding ring and curled her hand closed. “He ain’t here right now,” she said. “And he fine with you sittin up in a place like this all alone?” “I can handle myself,” she said. “I bet.” “I wanted to visit my mama, that’s all. He couldn’t make the trip.” “Well, he a brave man. Lettin you out his sight.” He was only flirting, she knew, for old time’s sake, but she still felt her skin flush. She fiddled absently with her blue scarf. “What about you?” she said. “I don’t see no ring on your hand.” “You won’t,” he said. “Don’t have the taste for none of that.” “And your woman don’t mind?” “Who said I got a woman?” “Maybe more than one,” she said. “I don’t know what you been up to.” He laughed, tilting back the rest of his drink. She hadn’t flirted with a strange man in years, although Sam often accused her of it. She was making eyes with the elevator operator, she was smiling too friendly at the doorman, she laughed too hard at that taxi driver’s jokes. In public, he seemed flattered when other men noticed her. In private, he punished her for their attention. And what would Sam say now, finding her in a place like this, Early standing so close she could reach out and touch the buttons down his shirt? “So when you headin back home?” he said. “I don’t know.” “You ain’t got a return ticket or nothin?” “You sure askin a lot of questions,” she said. “And you still ain’t told me what you do yet.” “I hunt,” he said. “Hunt what?” she said. He paused a long moment, staring down at her, and she felt his hand along the back of her neck. Tender, almost, the way you might soothe a crying child. It was so surprising, so different from his brusque flirting, that she didn’t know what to say. Then he tugged her scarf loose. It was beginning to fade, but still, even in the dim bar, he could see the bruise splotched across her neck. Nobody had warned her of this as a girl, when they carried on over her beautiful light complexion. How easily her skin would wear the mark of an angry man. Early was frowning and she felt as exposed as if he’d lifted up her skirt. She shoved him and he stumbled backward, surprised. Then she desperately wrapped her scarf around her neck before pushing her way out the door. * * * — MALLARD BENT. A place was not solid, Early had learned that already. A town was jelly, forever molding around your memories. The morning after Desiree Vignes shoved him in a bar, Early lay in bed at the boardinghouse, studying the photograph Ceel had given him. He’d stayed at the Surly Goat longer than he’d planned, but then again, he hadn’t planned to run into Desiree at all. He’d only wanted to kill time, maybe ask around a little. For two days, he’d poked around New Orleans, even though he knew Desiree wouldn’t be there. “She’s back there, I know it,” her husband had told him over the phone. “That’s where all her friends are. Where else would she go? Sister gone. She and her mama don’t talk.” Early clutched the phone, working his bare toe over the wood. “Where her sister gone off to?” he said. “Shit, I don’t know. Look, I wired you the first payment. You gonna find her or what?” This was why Early stuck to hunting criminals: it was never personal between the criminal and the bondsman, only a simple disagreement over dollars and cents. But a man searching for his wife was different. Desperate. He’d almost felt Sam Winston pacing behind him. Maybe Desiree would return to her husband on her own. If Early had a dime for every time a woman had stormed out on him. But Sam was convinced she’d left for good. “She just lit out,” he said. “Packed a bag and took my kid too, man. Just lit out in the middle of the night. What I’m supposed to do about that?” “Why you think she run off like that?” Early said. “I don’t know,” Sam said. “We had a disagreement, but you know how married folks are.” Early didn’t, but he didn’t say this. He didn’t want Sam to know anything about him. So he didn’t tell Sam when he’d decided to head to Mallard instead. A hurt bird always returns to its nest, a hurting woman no different. She would go home, he felt sure of this, even though he knew nothing about her life. On the I-10, he kept fiddling with the photos that Ceel had given him. Studying them for clues, he told himself, although he knew he was just admiring her. A pretty girl flirting with him on her porch now a beautiful woman, smiling, kneeling in front of a Christmas tree, surrounded by glimmering lights. She looked happy. Not like the type who might pick up and run. So what had driven her to? Well, no use in wondering. None of his concern, either way. He’d find her, take a couple pictures as proof. The photos in the mail, his money on its way, and his business with Desiree Vignes would be through. He hadn’t expected to find her so quickly in a bar filled with refinery men. He certainly hadn’t expected that bruise on her neck. When he’d pulled her scarf, he hadn’t meant to offend her—he was just surprised, that’s all. But she’d recoiled as if he’d been the one to grab her throat, then shoved him so hard, he backed into the man behind him and spilled his drink. He should’ve followed after her, but he was shocked and a little embarrassed, to tell the truth, all the other men whooping and laughing. “What she do that for?” the old barmaid asked. “I don’t know.” Early reached for a napkin, wiping down his jacket. “I ain’t seen her in years.” “Y’all used to go together?” a thin man in a Stetson asked. “Used to!” An old man laughed, clapping Early on the back. “Yeah, used to sounds right!” “She ain’t used to be that angry,” Early said. “Yeah, well I leave her alone if I was you,” the Stetson man said. “That whole family got problems.” “What kind of problems?” “You know her sister run off, get to thinkin she white now.” “Oh yeah,” the old man said. “Out there livin real fine like a white lady.” “Then Desiree got that child of hers.” “What’s the matter with the child?” Early asked. “Nothin the matter,” the Stetson man said slowly. “She just black as can be. Desiree went out and married the darkest boy she could find and think nobody round here knows he be puttin his hands on her.” “Come back to town with a big ol’ bruise.” The old man laughed. “Guess he be trainin her. He turn her into Joe Frazier, that’s why she come after you!” Early didn’t believe in beating on women—a man ought to fight fair, and until he met a woman who could match him blow for blow, he’d settle his disputes with them otherwise. At the same time, a job was a job. He wasn’t her minister or even her friend. He’d never really known her at all. Just a girl flirting with him on her porch. What happened between her and her husband was none of his business. In the morning, he gave a boy a nickel to point him to Adele Vignes’s house. He trampled over thick tree roots, slowly remembering the way, the camera bag bouncing at his side. Already, he felt seventeen again, wandering heartsick through these woods. How disgusted Adele Vignes looked, pointing him down the path. Desiree silent beside her, unable to even look at him. He’d stumbled home, humiliated, but when he told his uncle, the man only laughed. “What you expect, boy?” he said. “Don’t you know what you is around here? You a nigger’s nigger.” He never spoke to Desiree after that. What was he supposed to say? A place, solid or not, had rules. Early mostly felt foolish for thinking that Desiree would ever ignore them for him. Now he waited, hidden behind trees, focusing on the white house through his lens. Ten minutes, maybe, although he lost track of time, listening to swallows swoop overhead. Finally, Desiree stepped onto the front porch and lit a cigarette. Yesterday she’d startled him in the dark bar. He’d barely registered the reality of her. In the daylight, she reminded him of the girl he’d once met. Willowy, her dark tangled hair hanging down her back. She was pacing barefoot, brimming with a nervous energy that seemed to glow through her body to the tip of her cigarette. He finally raised the camera and snapped. Desiree reaching the end of the porch—click—then turning on her heels—another click. Once he started, he couldn’t stop watching her through the tiny rectangle, how her blue dress shifted as she walked, drawing his eyes to her slender ankles. Then the screen door opened and a jet-black girl stepped onto the porch. Desiree turned, smiling, stooping to sweep the girl into her arms. Early lowered the camera, watching Desiree carry her daughter inside the house. “What’s the news?” Sam said when he called that evening. “You found her?” Early leaned against the closet, imagining Desiree on the porch, holding her daughter. When he’d pulled down her scarf, she’d reached for the bruise, her fingers trailing along her skin as if she were adjusting a necklace. He’d wanted to touch it too. “I need a little more time,” he said. Three Leaving Mallard was Desiree’s idea but staying in New Orleans was Stella’s, and for years, Desiree would puzzle over why. When the twins first arrived in the city, they found work together in the mangle room at Dixie Laundry, folding sheets and pillowcases for two dollars a day. At first, the smell of clean laundry reminded Desiree so much of home, she nearly cried. The rest of the city was filthy—urine-splattered cobblestone, garbage cans overflowing onto streets, and even the drinking water tasting metallic. It was the Mississippi River, Mae, their shift supervisor, said. Who knew what they dumped in there? She was born and raised in Kenner, not far out of the city, so she was amused to witness the twins’ disorienting welcome. When they’d appeared at Dixie Laundry one morning—breathless and late after the annoyed streetcar driver left them fumbling for change on the curb—Mae pitied those poor country girls. She hired them on the spot, even though they were underage. “Your tail, not mine,” she said. When the inspectors came, always by surprise, she rang the lunch bell four times and the other laundry girls laughed as the twins darted into the bathroom until the inspection was over. Later, when she remembered Dixie Laundry, Desiree only pictured herself balancing on the toilet lid, pressed hard against Stella’s back. She hated working like this, always looking over her shoulder, but what else could she do? “I don’t care how many toilets I got to jump in,” she said. “I ain’t goin back to Mallard.” She was willful enough to make declarations like this. In truth, she wasn’t so sure. She still felt guilty about leaving their mother. Stella told Desiree that she couldn’t be mad at them forever—when they found better jobs, they’d start sending money home and Mama would see that leaving was the kindest thing they could have done. For a moment, the thought assuaged her guilt, and Desiree felt so relieved, she didn’t even find it strange that the Stella she’d dragged to New Orleans seemed intent on staying. Had Stella begun to change already? No, that came later. Back then, in the beginning anyway, she was the same Stella she had always been. Fastidious at work, stacking crisp pillowcases quietly, while Desiree always drifted toward the gossiping girls planning nights out. Stella tracking each penny they both earned, Stella sleeping beside her, still occasionally caught in nightmares until Desiree gently nudged her awake. As the weeks turned into months, their sudden jaunt into the city began to feel more permanent. The thought was thrilling and terrifying. They could do this foolish thing. And if so, then what? What could they not do? “The first year is the hardest,” Farrah Thibodeaux told them. “You do a year, you can make it.” For the first month, the twins slept on a pile of blankets on Farrah’s floor. They’d looked her up in the phone book when they arrived in the city, bleary-eyed and bedraggled and hungry. Farrah leaned against the doorway, laughing at the sight of them. She laughed at them often, like when they gawked at burlesque dancers posing in club windows or jolted away from drunk bums lurching down the sidewalk, or seemed every bit like two country girls who’d never been anywhere. “These are my twins,” she always said, introducing them to her friends, and Desiree only felt embarrassed. Her own awkwardness multiplied by her sister’s. Farrah waited tables at a little jazz club called the Grace Note. On nights she closed, she snuck the twins in through the alley and smuggled them food from the kitchen. Her Dominican boyfriend played the saxophone and wore a shiny silver shirt unbuttoned to his navel; in between songs, he hung over the stage, asking the twins what they wanted to hear. Then the twins spent the night on the dance floor, giddy, twirled by big-eared boys. They started to befriend the regulars: a shoeshine boy who danced with Desiree until her feet ached; a soldier who kept begging to buy Stella drinks; a bellhop at Hotel Monteleone who always let Desiree blow his whistle to hail cabs. “I bet you’re not thinkin about Mallard now,” Farrah said one night as the twins skittered, laughing and tired, onto the backseat. Desiree laughed. “Never,” she said. She was good at pretending to be brave. She would never admit to Farrah that she was homesick and worried always about money. Soon Farrah would tire of the twins sprawling out on her floor, taking up time in her bathroom, eating her food, always being around, an unwanted guest doubled. Then what? Where would they be? Maybe they were just silly country girls in over their heads. Maybe Desiree was foolish to ever believe she could be more than that. Maybe they should just go back home. “But you been talkin about comin out here forever,” Stella said. “You wanna go back already? For what? So everyone can laugh at you?” Only later, Desiree realized that each time she’d wavered, Stella had known exactly what to say to dissuade her from returning home. But if Stella herself wanted to stay, why hadn’t she just said so? Why hadn’t Desiree even asked? She was sixteen and self-centered, terrified that her impulsiveness would land her and her sister out on the streets. “I shouldn’t have brought you,” she said. “I should’ve just left alone.” Stella looked as shocked as if Desiree had struck her. “You wouldn’t,” she said, like it had suddenly become a possibility. “No,” Desiree said. “But I should’ve. I shouldn’t have dragged you into this.” This was how Desiree thought of herself then: the single dynamic force in Stella’s life, a gust of wind strong enough to rip out her roots. This was the story Desiree needed to tell herself and Stella allowed her to. They both felt safe inside it. * * * — BY THE END OF Desiree Vignes’s first week back in Mallard, everyone had already heard about the shove, which by then had become a slap, punch, or even a full-out brawl. The Vignes girl dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the bar. Those not too holy to admit that they’d been at the Surly Goat that afternoon said that they’d seen her leave, of her own volition, right after she attacked a dark man. Who was he and what had he said to anger her? Some thought he might have been her husband, come to fetch her. Others argued that he was a stranger who’d gotten fresh—she was just defending herself. Desiree had always been the prideful one; of course she’d lash out when wounded, unlike Stella, who’d rather die than make a scene. At the barber shop, Percy Wilkins slowly scraped his razor against the leather strop, listening to the men debate which twin had been the prettiest. In hindsight, Stella became more exotic, all the more beautiful now that she disappeared. But Desiree’s stock rose since she’d come home. Still a firecracker, anyone could see that. At least three men joked that she could shove them around all she wanted. “They never been right,” the barber said. “After they daddy.” Little girls weren’t supposed to witness what the Vignes twins had seen. At the funeral, he’d glanced at the twins, searching for some sign that they had been altered. But they just looked like girls to him, the same girls he’d seen skipping with Leon around town, each tugging on one of his arms. No way those girls could have turned out halfway normal. As far as he was concerned, both were a little crazy, Desiree perhaps the nuttiest of all. Playing white to get ahead was just good sense. But marrying a dark man? Carrying his blueblack child? Desiree Vignes had courted the type of trouble that would never leave. * * * — AT LOU’S EGG HOUSE, Desiree Vignes learned how to balance plates of scrambled eggs and bacon and toast. Grits swirled with butter, thick pancakes sopping with syrup. She learned how to navigate around tiny tables, turn a sharp corner without losing a coffee cup, memorize orders. She learned quickly because when she applied for the job, she told Lou that she’d waited tables for three years. “Three years, you say?” he asked on her first morning, when she struggled to take down an order. “A long while ago, but yes,” she said, smiling, “back in New Orleans.” Other times, she told him she’d waitressed in D.C. She lost track of her lies, and even though Lou noticed, he never confronted her about it. He didn’t believe in accusing ladies of lying, and besides, he knew that Desiree needed work, even if she was too proud to admit it herself. Imagine that—the founder’s great-great-great-granddaughter waiting tables, not for white folks either but right in Mallard. Whoever thought they’d live to see the day? The Decuirs had lived free for generations, then Adele married a Vignes boy; now her daughter was serving coffee to refinery men and bringing pecan pie to farm boys. Once you mixed with common blood, you were common forever. “She not much of a waitress,” Lou