by Rekha Valliappan
‘As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul . . . ‘
About ten years ago on a faraway island an unknown man of unknown origin was wheeled into hospital emergency with all possible speed, fighting for his life. His name was John Doe, a universally recognized one. He had been yanked out of a field of wild peat grass into which he had fallen in so deep, he was literally embedded beneath several clumps of damp earth. How he had reached such a desolate spot was unclear nor how he had been spotted. He had simply dropped from the sky. Free fallen? Swum shark-infested frigid waters? He concealed tactical intelligence? Who knew? He was real.
All that was known was that it had taken the efforts of a peat-max handily available to haul him out. Sphagnum moss and dark soil clung stubbornly to what could be seen of his flesh and bits of exposed bone, like sea barnacles to an ocean freighter. His condition was dire, in effect he was all but dead upon arrival, with not a hope.
He had no face. What was visible, unevenly obliterated below the hairline to
chest, were only his eyes which were closed, two thin strips of rotting lids sealing what lay beneath, like burnt bacon simmering in grease. He was bleeding out, dead by potential exsanguination and he had no pulse. Ruptured lung tissue was filling with fluid as in a serious bout of pneumonia. Out of the five lobes in his lung cavity, all five were actually involved in the pneumonia-like fluid substances. Further tests on what was left of the body would indicate infection in the bloodstream, every sign of septic shock, the body’s natural mechanism kicking in, but life threatening all the same.
At this juncture it was no longer even touch and go. John Doe was dead! The medical team and surgeons wasted scant moments, despite obvious disadvantages in their moderate facility. The doctors knew only too well what they were dealing with and up against despite the protocols of rapid response.
Working feverishly to revive what they could work with, which wasn’t much, for the most part they were tight-lipped at the relative strangeness of John Doe’s varied injuries. What was the cause? Where was his face? Who was he? They labored on regardless, doing what they must, resetting fractured limbs, patching, sewing, grafting, intubating, resuscitating.
Despite all their hard work he rapidly deteriorated. His organs failed multiple times presenting further insurmountable difficulties. Heart failed, kidneys failed, lungs failed, finally the entire endocrine system failed, giving him approximately 97% chance of definitely dying.
In just over three weeks that the comatose patient was dicing with the inevitable
and his Maker, John Doe had coded five times. In medical parlance there are varying definitions of the word ‘code’, but in this particular case it meant that the patient had no sign of pulse and that he had also stopped breathing. In essence, to all practical purposes of recording medical outcomes, John Doe was indeed dead. This may not mean much. To the medical team it did.
* * *
“I DON’T care.”
“Don’t you get it?”
“Get what? What?”
“I don’t need no lip service, especially from you.”
“I hate you!”
“Give me my baby.”
“Ours! Ours! Never! Not after . . .!”
“Let me have Jody. I can . . .!”
“And you can . . .?!”
“Never! Go back to La-La land!”
“Out! Before I . . .”
“You’re effing crazy you know!”
“Jodeeeeeee . . .”
She had let her guard down. Things were so weird. Cora, sobbing hysterically, swaying on weighted legs panicked into movement, torn between tendrils of real fear over her baby’s safety and a desperate situation unfolding in this strange land of the midnight sun, which she knew little of. A dead mother was far worse than an absent mother.
With little forethought she sprinted out into the void, more on point into the desolation outside, with no one to turn to and nowhere to run. Like a weevil scattering in a sack of grain she took flight. Lars could do plenty.
She would never return. She had been playing with fire. This time it was for good. Her redoubled energy lasted the duration of the short sprint it took for lanky legs to travel distance through the drifts of ice and snow with nothing warmer than a parkha on her back and worn leather boots which did not do much.
Teenage motherhood did not sit well with her. She carried scars however starkly she chose to flatten out her life to bite-size pieces. Icicles formed at random on her eyelashes which she brushed away impatiently. But she could not keep the tears from falling. Jody! She had lost her baby for keeps–cornflower blue eyes that followed her religiously, grubby fat fingers and rosy cheeks swam into view. He would cry
inconsolably, oh how she knew.
He had just learnt to form ma-ma which had so infuriated Lars to lunacy,
although Jody mouthing baby prattle couldn’t tell the difference between a ma to a da as Cora had often attempted explaining, beleaguered as they both were in their own
Still, protesting to Lars was like conversing with a tree, deader than antediluvian earthworks. Butting her head on a doorpost would have produced better results. At the end of her tether, she had lovingly keyed his brand new metallic blue mustang with Ichabod, the name she used for her ‘headless horseman’ of the northern oil fields.
The man with no face.
* * *
“It’s a growing debacle Cora. I want you to shake a leg on this one. Shake two
“I know my stories Chief. This is a dead-ender, as sure as I’m sitting here.”
“There’s shit flying around. I want it.”
Cora rolled her eyes in mock helplessness. Her Boss was in complicated bad shape. An up-and-coming multi-media journalist at WAM-TV, a small but growing network in Houston, Cora was a fighter, despite her old baggage. She knew her job. She was loathe to take on old news to make it new. It was just not done. No point arguing. She knew the peril. But there was just no trigger mechanism in this story. Nothing. No leverage either. Timing was all wrong. She was working four extremely lucrative stories.
Besides, after all the bumps and twists and bizarre fallout, that old story had gone to seed. Not a hyperbolic statement either. All avenues had been crosshatched since ten years ago. Part of her job. No fabrication there. None.
Plane-ly-speaking, no pun intended, the anatomy of the vanishing plane mystery had ceased to grow. Hadn’t she fiercely collected piece by piece every little junket of news she could collect? What had turned the Boss desperate? Why did the old geezer want her on this watered down tale?
For a decade Cora had been on her own private war-path in search of a serial philandering ex- Lars who had flown the coop so to say, changing wives, she had lost count, unable to keep up, now in the Bahamas under a new name, now in Cambodia, all the while absconding with her precious Jody. Her life was a mess.
Hey fellas, planes vanish like it or not. That is a nailed down fact. Didn’t Air Evana happen? Wasn’t it never ever found? Didn’t the world’s experts dredge five oceans pole to pole? Yeah! Cathartic moments for the anguished. We all gotta die one day. Stuff happens.
“So why re-hash the old, eh? For someone’s ego trip?!”
“Forget analytics, Cora. Get off your behind. You heard!”
“Don’t we chase news any more? Geezer is turning old.”
“Just go along . . . “
“That’s the new first hand account!”
“Really! You don’t say.”
“We do say! Rolo Dislich!”
“Who the moon is Rolo Dislich?!”
“Ah-Ha! That’s what you’re to find out. Our new jungle boy. I knew you’d see.”
“–after ten years playing dead another whodunnit? Good grief! What did he
“Drop out of the sky! . . . mid-air manna-from-heaven . . . networks are all
chomping at the bit.”
“Fabulous! Screw the networks, so let them chomp.”
Golly gee! Boss sure was desperate. Rolo Dislich? Never heard of him.
“Stick around. We’re on the story,” was all she said.
An unknown ‘survivor’ Rolo Dislich had mysteriously emerged claiming he had been on that ill-fated flight. Pretty wild you would think? His first-hand account was contained in an even wilder upbeat new book, titled ‘Whatever Happened to Flight 401?’ A bizarre outburst of sorts. He had made milquetoast of the networks, researchers and scores of faithful followers who had never given up on the story, steadily keeping up the constant barrage of point-counter-point analysis, query and rebuttal of what could have occurred that fatal day.
It was not at them that Cora turned her energy. Grappling with relatives of the dead passengers victimized anew, was so disturbingly unbelievable. The cruel tragedy had never found closure. Now a new book actually describing gory details could only at best be described as insensitive—at worst vindictive and callous.
She pulled out her old files. What came up was concise. On the night of May 6, 2007, AirReva Flight 401 left Gate 32, of the international airport at Helsinki, for what was to be a routine flight to Houston, with three hundred and sixty passengers on board and fifteen crew. Four hours into the flight the plane would be declared missing, having dropped out of radar, never to be seen again.
It sprouted a long-lasting narrative of seminal proportions. The stories Cora
would spin after a multitude of interviews and investigative inquiries was Pulitzer prize-winning—what had gone wrong? How did Flight 401 simply vanish without a trace? Did the pilots suffer a sudden health emergency? Had terrorists staged a dry run which had turned acute? Was the airline creating an urban legend to boost revenue? Could a meteor have struck out of the blue? Did the aircraft have a systemic malfunction? Was it a deliberate act? A random act? A film production crew reviving Twilight Zone? Answers there were none. What was in hand were massive stacks of corroborative evidence, filed from intensive searches mounted, through land, sea and air, and reams of data made publicly available of nothing. Nothing!
Flight 401 overnight was legend. And legends never died. Over ten years of searching for answers! Not even Cora’s malamute jawbone clamp, to arrive at the facts, and never let go of a story, would produce much by way of answers. Eventually the theatrics of reporting and over-reporting had simply died down altogether.
And now, this! Shuffling through her desk for a cold case?! Who was Rolo ‘Mastermind’ Dislich?
Within weeks new interest in the forgotten tragedy was re-sparked. Questioning everyone’s sanity. Semblance of a conspiracy? Cora choked on her sugared donut, spitting up bits of hot mocha and chocolate. She would have to chase up this pathetic ‘survivor’ idiot, whoever he was, hovering in a sort of premeditated bait. Setting her up? She would decide. She would brandish the media sword of scandal over his head.
But, however hard she poked fun at her objective, the book launched by little known publisher Fin & Fen, was surely but steadily climbing the best-selling charts, given the spectacular nature of the publicity it was fast receiving. It had even re-triggered a stunning you said-I-said-they-said verbal war of sorts, hot and troubling exchanges, mainly between the now defunct airlines back in the public eye and the ‘survivor’, through the publisher of course, then the airlines and the publisher, then the publisher and its own ‘author’, then the airlines and the airlines under new management.
The airlines buckling under pressure, typically known for the finality of their standard customer-service responses, fell to revamping their catch phrases. They vehemently and resoundingly denied all accuracy of this new fictitious book account. Their old flight records were re-released to all satellite media, for the benefit of accuracy, for millions to chew on, deja-vu all over again, indicating that this so-called ‘survivor’ of dubious talent was not even on that fatal flight.
According to their records one Rolond Dislich had boarded one of their flights. Ah-Ha, unfortunately, he could no longer be traced. Ouch! He had arrived in Houston from Atlanta, of all places, and get this!–one hour after Flight 401 had departed Gate 32 in Helsinki. Inconvenient! So how would he have boarded Flight 401? Barn owl crazy! Unless he had shimmied in airwaves like a super-charged Voltron. Dislich’s storybook account was nothing but a tall tale. It was taking a beating.
Now listen you numbskulls, Fin & Fen spat, putting out an unequivocal lengthy
statement. They released details of a survey which indicated the world had not forgotten the grim tragedy, nor did they want to forget the inopportune death of three hundred and seventy-five worthy individuals, snatched preemptively from the midst of their loved ones, on a beautiful day in spring, including infants and babies in arms.
Absolutely heart-breaking. Babies? Cora’s ears twitched. Nice, ramming it through the swamp. A firebrand of sorts, she was beginning to find solace in the very insolence of the argument, warmly sidling up to it unashamedly, like a necking llama in heat. Her thoughts were of her own lost son. Jody! A young teen, now. What did he look like? She thought of children without parents, parents without children, families torn, wallowing in the dark. Yes indeed, people still wanted to know.
In a thunderclap crowd-funded propitious moment, not to be saddled with more debt during promotions, in which all of social media participated – ‘Whatever Happened to Flight 401?’ was expeditiously re-launched by Fin & Fen. The story caught fire–like a runaway train. A disbelieving people hungering for more fell into believing. God Almighty–what hefty reportage from newsrooms!
Despite the red flags and her instinctive distaste, Cora was forced to take a peak at the impactful book, blown away by its three hundred and seventy-five pages, a page for every victim. What was worse Rolo’s first hand account did not mince words, not even in the Prologue, delivered at length, which without further ado sharply addressed the very topic which should not have been underscored, so unsubtly – the issue of death and life, and life after death, and death after life in a salacious and beguiling fashion, eating at the heart of human conscience from the obscure ‘Seele und Tod’ perspectives of master philosophers Jung and Nietzsche. Appalling but Nice!
There was passing mention of a world famous yogi and his three planes of ascent into divine immortality through the gates of optical metaphysics and surreal existentialism. You don’t say? From there Rolo took off at a tangent with redoubled energy on religion and death gyring aimlessly, sounding like a scholar from Harvard Divinity School, or a singing choir of cherubs descended from above. The book was certainly worth a read for the Prologue alone, thought Cora, staring at the hardback covers in sky blue, with a fading ghost image of a plane in flight, dominating shelves in the Barnes & Noble.
From thereon the novel created its own brutal reality, plunging headlong into
the so-called run-up to actual events. It placed the specter of blame on roulette behavior of a punch-drunk batch of unruly passengers, who could not understand in-flight instructions, or were insanely egregious, or both, occupying seats mid-rows, as ear-marked by Rolo. This feral pack of ‘evil perps’ joined by another larger group who did not speak English, resulting in a weird skirmish that was to ensue, was what did Flight 401 in.
Chapters four to ten explained the dynamics seamlessly. Air Titanic in motion.
Non-compliant passengers, some highly belligerent, had had their cell phones
simultaneously turned on, either deliberately or unknowingly, at take-off, despite
repeated calls by crew to turn all cell phones off. They just couldn’t or wouldn’t comply— too busy taking pictures, posing for selfies, of an altercation underway, between one uncooperative shrill lady passenger protesting soprano-like, who it later turned out was the sole interpreter for the non-English speaking group, and the actions of the flight attendant, in forcibly snatching her cell phone away.
“Ms. Josy-Phine . . .”
“Don’t mess with me, miss, let me tell you . . .”
“No, let ME tell you, Ms. Josy-Phine . . .”
“Cell phone’s off, right now, Miss!”
“Ms. Josy-Phine . . .”
“The name is Josfin. J-o-s-f-i-n.”
It led to a brief struggle between the two, during which both rolled about like starving warthogs denied of a feast, their movements sluggish though accurate. During skirmish, they knocked themselves up good, in the aisle. In the time it took for them to sober up and be out of commission, several others had joined the melee, some to restore order, others to join in. The plane was still in ascent. Neither the captain nor copilot attended to the fracas. The cabin crew thought they had the situation under control. No alarm was called.
Chapters eleven to fifteen was skewered again, on religion and death, delivering a message from the afterlife, which the author seemed to show intimacy with–such powerful forces and beauty as he had seen, in Elysian-type fields of Homer and Hesiod, full of lilacs and other exotic flowers, olive gardens and nature landscapes in bloom. Glowing images of happiness and rapture like a Matisse painting flowed from his pen, despite Rolo’s obvious lack of poetic imagination.
Chapters fifteen onwards underscored the flight’s fiery sunset moments, how at some point first class passengers got into the fray, yelling at cabin crew. A hail of rude words were exchanged, items flung like mini projectiles. It resulted in more forcible snatching of cell phones from the impromptu-documentary-filming group, and physically propelling them to their seats.
Rolo himself grabbed two of the traipsing duo, frog-marched them up the aisle, and told them in definitive terms to be seated. Talk about persuasion! In Chapter seventeen he admits, from where he was seated in the middle of the plane, he could see the ugly situation arising, even as they were taxiing for take-off. What had he really seen?
Chapter sixteen, a rather long chapter, was devoted in entirety to the disaster—engineering constructs and graphics of the modular plane. Disruptions to the plane’s wiring systems caused by engineering malfunction, which at cruising altitude created a wild sudden yawing motion, too erratic to effectively describe, tossing passengers and bags around helplessly; before settling on an upswing surge of pure energy where it burst, splitting with the brightness of a thousand suns, like steam turbines exploding, breaking up the cylindrical outer structure of the commercial aircraft into a zillion pieces that glittered like shooting stars.
Rolo had been flung clean out. Seated near the emergency exit door with his toddler son is how he survived his free-fall. Son? Only now in Chapter sixteen? What a rap! Cora’s interest redoubled. She could not let that pass. She simply could not. For ten years she had searched. Jody!
Rolo then went on to hazard the guess that there could be one or two other survivors like him, but thought not. The book abruptly ended with the Epilogue, which was very brief and far from convincing. It suggested he was working on the sequel which would detail how he survived. Hardly Rolo’s at all, in the style and synapse. More like an after-thought footnotes added by the publisher, for marketing effect.
Whatever could the writer have been thinking? More in point what could her Boss have been thinking? Cora’s immediate reaction was to join the angry calls and protests heard worldwide, to ban the outrageous book, to challenge all dilettante authors who live in fantasy worlds of cruel make-believe.
But Rolo had boarded out of Helsinki? Was he an engineer? Did he work the oil fields? Ichabod? Could he be a police officer? Language of the text seemed to suggest so. Nature was so untrue. Lars?–her headless Ichabod of the northern oil fields with the cruel countenance and eyes that shone like raging wild fires, in spurts. Was it possible? Had he left Drammen?
* * *
Then the day came. The doctors were on the verge of pulling the plug on John
Doe vegetating in a coma. Future intervention was futile they well knew. Two years had not improved outcomes. Two years for relatives to emerge, someone, anyone, who knew John Doe. Three years in their weather-beaten island, little larger than an atoll, was a long time. With very little to go on, the local constabulary had closed the case as an accident in the islet bog, from tripping over a log, falling over a nest of black mambas. Who knows? The marae had spoken. When one is bitten multiple times there is not much that can be done.
No one had come forward to claim the patient, despite publicity. It appeared he had no relatives. Local inhabitants vanished for years, often permanently, sometimes to reappear none the worse for wear and tear. Besides, John Doe’s face was eviscerated, did not exist. Recognition was impossible, with no proper bone structure to build on, round, long or square. It didn’t matter.
Doctors had tried what they could using muscle ‘flaps’ and skin, to re-implant and sew on the face. Over three hundred grafts. They experimented. They held out hope. But the reality was that in a short while he would be forgotten, by all but the doctors, and a kindly minister from the nearby church, who had one day spontaneously shown up, with nothing more in mind than thoughts of a decent burial for John Doe, not in an unmarked grave, which few would remember.
All knew without saying, if the same had occurred in Oklahoma or the Dakotas, the entire area of unverified unearthing would have been immediately sealed, cordoned off for investigation, research and clues, with various laboratories involved in the testing, from even before the story broke. Not so on this small island where time stood still. Some situations were beyond control.
Then one fine Christmas eve the miracle occurred. The miracle no one thought
possible. John Doe opened his eyes. Ancient eyes they were, the color of golden honey, sparkling fresh as a dewdrop in spring. Almost as soon as he did, the pastor who happened to be present at the ‘awakening,’ began talking joyfully to him, about the incredible beauty he must have seen, of ‘the other side’.
The pastor had been doing so daily, on and off, to the comatose patient. The
doctors had given him to understand this to be a necessity–the finest send-off therapy anyone could selflessly give a dying man, on the verge of a final journey. When the pastor grew tired of speaking, he had sung joyful and compelling hymns, of the richness of what lay beyond. Could John Doe have heard? None thought so. But he brought with him a calm serenity and blessedness none thought possible.
Those who were present in that small hospital were overjoyed at the miraculous
recovery. In time John Doe communicated. When he did, it was by writing and hand signs, since he had no face, and could not speak, except for those startling golden eyes. He revealed, that while he had been on ‘the other side,’ he had been given a message to deliver. He claimed to have seen the afterlife, each time, whenever he coded. He had to put it all in a book, everything he knew.
* * *
Cora felt numbed. She resumed her investigations in dead earnest. First she called a home number listed for Dislich in the Atlanta area. But it was no longer in service. She left several messages, for a Rolo Dislich found at two workplaces–one the Oregon Meat Packing Plant called the Howling Happy Hog Farms, the other a data processing center in Loveland, Colorado, called Finisterre OmniVision. Both to no avail. Next she scoured Drammen, and for good measure even Trondberg, and Oslo. Dead end. She tried reaching Rolo through email addresses and cell phones. None were working. There simply was no Rolo Dislich. Not even in Helsinki. She was running out of alternatives to pursue.
By this time earlier in the month of November, Fin & Fen were putting out into
cyberspace small snippets of quite another story, in direct contradiction to what they had produced six months prior – the fabrication of some parts of their best-selling novel ‘Whatever Happened to Flight 401?’ They had no choice. It appeared they could not reach Rolo Dislich either, and were taking some heat.
What transpired infuriated Cora enough to take umbrage, shifting into high gear.
She turned her intrusive antennas on the publishers instead, succeeding in obtaining the one and only on-camera interview Fin & Fen would ever give. It was a first. But such was her dogged focus. The allusion to Lars alarmed her more than it did the world.
Taking off like a lunar rocket she boldly accused Fin & Fen of deliberately
creating a fictitious author, misleading the world by an imaginary ‘survivor’ of their own creation, making a cruel mockery of very real dead souls, and a laughing stock of a flight attendant’s inability to handle an irate passenger. Where was this so-called bubble-brain Rolo Dislich? What do we know? she tooted, sounding like she would blow a gasket.
The novel would have to be garbaged. What else? Truly shocking! Waste of
fifty-five dollars for horse-shit, although off-camera the publishers still insisted they were fully on board, and stood behind their ‘survivor’ and his tale. Consume and be happy. Did it really matter? Reading between the antlers was all it took. Their comments, and her comments, and both sides’ counter comments, and so on and so forth since all went viral, chased down by every press and media you could think of or name. Her excruciating plan to produce Lars excoriated, whether it backfired or not.
Social media was in uproar. The airlines reiterated settlements made to the tune
of several billion dollars. This proved to be hyped. They had apologized. Air Reva had long since filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They were no longer in operation.
The point was a frustrated Cora drowned in distrust of everyone, including
herself. The truth was, try as hard as she could, she had failed miserably. She could not rear her son. She was a failure as a mother. She could not protect Jody her little boy thrown into an unstable environment, where damp winds blew in the salt of the sea, growing without a loving mother to harness the rot.
What could she deliver? How much? In her line of work the sky was the limit. It
had always been. She could at the very least aim for the prestigious Von Sklaaren prize awarded by the Kleinen Foundation for excellence in journalism? Oh yeah? Should she?
* * *
The day came when John Doe fit to move left the facility, left that remote island. Just as suddenly as he had appeared, he left with not a trace.
The good news was that he was alive. But his future did not belong there, in an
obscure place. He had been preserved for a purpose. He had a mission to complete, a book to write. He had a vision to conquer. His Maker had singled him out. Only he knew the truth. He had the answers which philosophers down the ages had tirelessly searched.
Disjointed thoughts sluiced through his brain patterns clamoring to be freed.
They would be a constant part of him for evermore. At unguarded moments all he wanted to do was nothing but write. He had a son to return to his ex-. He had the manifested consciousness of spirit and mind to restore, which spoke quietly within him, in yearning supplication.
John Doe wore a mask. A temporary device of convenience. The ethnic locals
had it artistically fashioned out of coconut shell and palm leaves covered in dye.
Physically it did not do much except conceal his disfiguration in neoteny, like a
salamander of rare trait, retaining its larval features throughout its adult life. Figuratively, none would see the face behind the mask. All was mind in the other self he had become. All was subconscious movement defining the interconnectedness.
John Doe had been on that doomed flight, on a beautiful day in spring, to return
their son to his ex-. Helsinki to Houston. He would never reach. Only his golden eyes shone with a remembrance washed with the truth, burnished fire in their intensity,
incredibly revealing their renewed zeal, from out of a featureless face.
It was as if the man with no face had never been. A tele-snap. A blink of an ideological moment.
As they say in some circles el manana es incierto!! . . . manana por favor . . .
Rekha Valliappan is an award-winning multi-genre writer of short fiction and poetry, holding degrees from Madras University and the University of London. Her masthead credits include a Pushcart Prize nomination 2018, the Boston Accent Lit Prize for Short Story 2017, Across The Margin Best of Fiction 2017, Schlock! Quarterly Best Short Stories 2019, Ouen Press Prize Winners Anthology 2017, and publication in many literary journals including Aphelion, NonBinary Review, GHLL, Bending Genres, Red Fez, Lackington’s, Foliate Oak, Five:2:One, Thrice Fiction, Madras Courier, ColdNoon, Rabid Oak, Liquid Imagination, The Pangolin Review, Scarlet Leaf, Active Muse, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere.