One spring evening in the year 1999 my mother and I were watching Wheel of Fortune, our matching rocker-recliners locked into their forward positions so we could reach our fast food burgers and fries, when a news bulletin interrupted the show: two young children had been kidnapped from a Native American reservation in New Mexico. The announcement was brief but Wheel of Fortune switched straight to commercial, and Momma had already guessed the puzzle: surrender to win. Dark, shiny smudges marked her hamburger bun since she had painted blue eye shadow on her lips that morning. On the days I took care of her, I let her do whatever she wanted.
Later that evening, after I had arranged her in the great canopied bed with the white George Washington spread (she was wearing a cotton nightgown embossed with an image of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) she whispered, “It was the S and the double R combination that gave it away.”
“So how did you know the first word wasn’t serrated?” Serrated had been my own guess.
Her dark eyes gleamed up at me, deep in their orbits. “Don’t be silly, honey. That word only has two Rs, and there aren’t enough letters.” She called me honey whenever she couldn’t remember my name.
Her hair was encased in a pair of white nylon underpants to preserve its shape. I had removed all of her makeup, including the lipstick on one eyelid. Either she had stopped with one eye because she sensed something was wrong or she simply got distracted.
Leaning back against her wedge of puffy pillows, she stared past me through the balcony’s closed glass doors toward the lights of the Cooper River Bridge, glittering in the distance. Still fully clothed, I kicked off my hiking boots and settled on top of the covers on the other side of her bed so we could watch the 11 o’clock news together.
The kidnapping in New Mexico was the lead story. A brief video revealed a teary young woman identified as Ruby Redstone emerging through the doors of a hospital Emergency Room. She wore an ankle-length mauve skirt and a white blouse splashed with dried blood, almost like a matching decoration. Her straight black hair was pulled back, and a lemon-sized patch of scalp above her forehead had been shaved and bandaged. She leaned intensely toward the camera. “I beg of you, whoever you are, let my children go unharmed!” She was riveting, although my view may have been altered by recognition. Despite her auburn skin, Asiatic eyes, and different last name, I knew immediately who she was. “Momma,” I whispered, “that’s our Ruby, all grown up.”
She reached over and patted my hand. “Don’t be upset, honey. Don’t you worry.” In my mother’s lovely present, distress was rarely permitted.
“I’m not upset,” I lied. I hadn’t seen my brother Royce since his daughter was a baby, but this young woman had the curve of my shoulders, her mouth resembled mine, and her hands were bewilderingly familiar. I was too stunned by our physical similarities–and her sudden reemergence in our lives–to respond.
In the early 1980s, Royce had vanished into the white supremacist underworld, sought by the FBI as a possible member of a terrorist organization called the Silent Brotherhood, or the Order. Unsuccessful in apprehending him, the FBI could not find his Vietnamese lover and their six-year-old child either, although it was assumed that Santane and Ruby were hiding from Royce, not with him. When the private detective I’d hired did not locate them either, I let the situation drop, because why would Santane have trusted me? The child, though, I had fretted a great deal about the child.
The one time I visited them, Royce and Santane and their baby were living peacefully in a cabin in Mendocino, California. In that phase of his life my brother was presenting as a gentle faux-Buddhist nurturing his budding family while he wrote his novel, The Burning Chest, using pencils on lined paper. In the evenings their cabin was lighted with oil lamps because Royce eschewed electricity. Before I departed, he took me outside to confide, his face tight with emotion, that he had named their daughter after the old black woman who had cared for us as children. But not long after his novel was published to high critical praise, Royce suddenly abandoned Santane and Ruby and plunged headlong into the maw of white extremism. It was as if another man had been coiled inside him and sprang forth, full-blown and monstrous.
Because of his novel’s critical success, Royce’s conversion invited attention. In an underground newsletter he began writing what he deemed “Position Papers.” A canny writer at the Village Voice discovered them to produce a front-page piece titled “The Disintegration of Royce Burns” chronicling the rise of white extremist groups, especially the Silent Brotherhood, and my brother’s possible connection. The Brotherhood had successfully counterfeited twenty dollar bills, robbed a Brinks truck of several million dollars, and assassinated Alan Berg, a Denver radio host who had mocked and baited them. Berg, being Jewish, had been deemed a significant part of ZOG, the Zionist conspiracy they believed was secretly controlling the world. Berg had been shot in his driveway, peacefully unloading his groceries.
I doubted this purported connection between my brother and the Silent Brotherhood because through his position papers I knew of their “theoretical disagreements.” In “Position 4” Royce insisted that Hitler’s crucial mistake was, in fact, his anti-Semitism, and that Jews were an essential element of the coming white revolution. Royce, therefore, would have viewed the killing of Alan Berg as a disastrous mistake.
In 1984 the FBI successfully trapped half a dozen members of the Silent Brotherhood, including its leader, in a “safe house” on Whidbey Island in Washington state. A shootout took place during which an incendiary grenade set the house ablaze. The group’s founder and leader, Robert Matthews, chose to remain inside while the house burned to the ground. Most other members surrendered or were captured, and the FBI proclaimed the Silent Brotherhood effectively disabled. Then, in 1986, a full two years after the shootout, the FBI notified us that the remains of another body had been detected in the Brotherhood fire. My brother’s identification, we were told with what might have been a whiff of pride, involved one of the earliest uses of DNA for such a purpose. The box containing Royce’s remains troubled me, of course–it’s hard to believe in anyone’s death without visual proof–but we buried what they sent us in a child-size coffin. Our mother, still cogent and witty at that point, had remarked, through her grief, “Well, I do remember him best when he was small.” When I replied, “I guess he’ll always be my little brother,” she even tried to smile.
The next morning Momma and I watched the news on the TV in her condo’s kitchen while she ate Cheerios with sliced bananas and milk, a ritual she had been clinging to since my childhood. National media were quickly assembling some of Ruby Redstone’s background, mainly the fact that her father had been the novelist-turned- terrorist, my own brother, Royce Burns.
According to news reports, Ruby Redstone’s husband, a full-blooded Nogalu Native named Lightman Redstone, had come home from work yesterday evening to find his wife unconscious and bound with silver duct tape, a strip of skull exposed from a freely bleeding wound, a hammer on the floor beside her. Their children were nowhere to be found. The car, with the child seats inside, remained in the gravel driveway.
The account that Ruby stumbled through with him and then with local and federal authorities was so outlandish it seemed convincing. White supremacists, she said, had come to her home looking for her lost father. They already knew about her mixed blood and had mocked her, but were infuriated by the sight of the children, River, two, and Lucia, four, whose lineage, they said, had been entirely destroyed. Their leader was a tall clean-shaven narrowly built man who said her children were “the worst kind of mongrels, abominations and sins against God.” Ruby described how she had begged them not to take River and Lucia, who were innocent, but their leader had shouted, “No one is innocent in the land of Nod!” No, she did not know what the land of Nod was, but she thought the attack must involve some kind of blackmail plot against her father. She had never for one minute believed that her father was dead.
Even after I knew much more about what actually happened, I could not comprehend why Ruby would have wanted to bring my brother out of hiding. He was a dangerous, hate-filled man who had abandoned her. But, despite her dazzling lies, she soon dragged me out of the serene light of my mother’s dementia and into the glare of the dreadful public events, the kind I had so carefully learned to avoid.
Excerpted from Tomb of the Unknown Racist, copyright © 2018 by Blanche McCrary Boyd. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.