In "The Vanishing Half" (Riverhead Books), the new novel by Brit Bennett (author of the New York Times bestselling "The Mothers"), twin sisters living in the Deep South in the 1960s choose separate lives as one secretly passes for White.
Read an excerpt below.
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- granddaughter. 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?
From "The Vanishing Half: A Novel" by Brit Bennett. © 2020 by Brit Bennett. Published by Riverhead Books. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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