Chapter One: Kobunga Nzela -- Disparant -- Vanish
Through the thick glass of this porthole, the night sea is dim and indistinct, barely defining a line between sky and water. Thirty thousand feet beneath a pillow of air, the ocean's blackness swallows even the indurate light of a full moon, and it is only the clouds lingering ten thousand feet below him that offer some faint sense of promise or hope. Beyond that there is a void that extends under the silver clouds to some unfathomable infinity, like something missing, or everything missing -- the way Lewis has always imagined blindness.
Most of the other passengers are sleeping, mouths agape like escape hatches flung open. The businessman across the aisle from him looks like a child this way, a desperate boy who hopes no one will see through the disguise and perceive his pillowy kindness. Lewis's eyes meet those of the only other passenger who is awake, an African man, a Muslim. He wears a white djellaba, which in the dim cabin is so brightly lit by his reading light that it gives him an ethereal look. Beyond him a flight attendant sits calmly in the jump seat, flipping through a French edition of Vogue, her stiffly made-up face lit by the warm light bouncing off the magazine.
Lewis turns back to his window. That must be Africa, slipping by beneath the clouds. He presses his face against the cool glass, which is delicately traced with frost on the outside, trying to see some detail, even to confirm that what he sees is land, but there is only an unappeasable darkness and merely his imagination to illuminate it. It seems to approach silently and steadily like sleep. He watches until the faint glimmer of the ocean is consumed by it completely and they have crossed over. His gut stirs with unease. There is an unrealness to his relationship with this place, so thoroughly insulated is he by the dull roar of the turbines, the soft bumps of turbulence in the jet stream. There is also something vaguely threatening.
Who goes to Africa? he thinks. A few camera-laden vacationers on "safari," transported by four-wheel-drive buses, still a bit aloft, or some dusty, sweaty businessmen, miners or arms salesman, the kind of men you never see in the suburbs of America, mercenaries in suits and ties, and doctors, missionaries and Peace Corp volunteers. Lewis never expected to go anywhere near Africa. Not that he avoided it, either; he just never thought of it. Not once. He changed planes in Paris for the ten-hour flight to Johannesburg without a thought of where he was going. It could have been anywhere. Selling Coca-Cola to foreign markets takes him all over the world. One of the local distributors will meet him at the gate, help him with his bags and take him to an office not that different from what he has seen in Australia or New Zealand. At first he won't even be able to distinguish the accent. They will treat him, as he is accustomed, like a client. There will be a basket of biscuits and South African wine and a hat and sunblock waiting in his hotel room.
Somehow he must have fallen asleep with his head against the window. He looks up for a flight attendant -- perhaps some water. At first he cannot find her. She is no longer reading. Then he notices the African man staring with an odd intensity at the galley, where she's talking on the interphone. Something in her stance, the way she looks at the floor, the tenseness of her body, seems a bit off. Lewis presses his face into his hands. There is in this unfirm place, this moment between consciousness and unconsciousness as his mind struggles to reassert command, such fertile ground for doubt. In his stomach he can feel the plane descending. He looks for his watch; it seems early, but it could be the time zone difference. His watch isn't set right.
Then two of the other flight attendants join the first. Lewis frowns. He can't shake the impression that something is not right with this scene. The first flight attendant takes the phone away from her mouth and says something to the other two. They nod, listening intently. She gestures with some urgency, and they move off in a hurry. The African man leans out into the aisle, and with a calm hand touches the hem of the flight attendant's uniform.
"Qu'est-ce qui se passe?"
She leans down to explain, but her voice is too soft to make out. From across the cabin she catches Lewis's eyes on her as she finishes, and it's easy to see that whatever she just said was a lie. As if to prove it, the left wing of the jet dips sharply as the plane makes an abrupt course change, and the lights come on suddenly as the cabin blinks awake.
"Mesdames et messieurs, votre attention s'il vous plaît."
The tone of the captain's message is disturbing, and it's maddening to have to listen to it first in French. Lewis makes out the words la fumée, "smoke."
"What the hell is going on?"
Two flight attendants race by Lewis with a service cart rattling with loose items. They aren't taking time to gather anything from the passengers, and they are yelling as they go. "Seat belts. Tray tables and seat backs up."
"Ladies and gentlemen. May we have your attention..." That much he got already, but it is oddly reassuring. He senses that in the worst kind of emergency, the kind you don't survive, there would be no time for formalities, and even though the plane is descending, it still feels normal, still under control. He can feel the subtle pressure building in his ears. The passengers are all looking up at the speakers above their heads as if to hear better.
"We are experiencing smoke in the cockpit. To ensure your safety, we must land immediately at the nearest possible airport. Flight attendants are preparing for a possible emergency landing and evacuation. Please pay close attention to all flight attendant instructions and demonstrations."
"Please take your safety cards out. Look at the brace position." The flight attendant closest to Lewis holds up her card. The passengers take them out like hymnals at church. "Lean forward and hold your ankles," she says, and then she nearly falls as the nose of the plane suddenly drops and the engines rapidly power down to an idle. There are screams throughout the cabin. The plane is falling like a rollercoaster dropping at a carnival. All around him he sees passengers grabbing their armrests. Lewis quickly tightens his belt and reaches for his safety card. The flight attendant has regained her balance, and she is leaning forward with her feet wide apart to compensate for the steep angle of the descent. She's doing her best to remain calm and demonstrate how the passengers are expected to brace for landing, but she is close enough to Lewis that he can see the fear in her eyes.
"Lean forward and hold your ankles. If that is not possible, cross your hands and place them on the seat back in front of you. Lean forward and place your head on the back of your hands. Flight attendants, check brace position." It comes rapidly, first in French and then in English, but it is hard to hear over the terrific noise of the air rushing outside the plane. They are descending at six thousand feet per minute.
"Christ." Lewis drops his card, leans forward and grabs his ankles for the rehearsal. He looks across the aisle -- hands on ankles everywhere. He still has that sick feeling in his stomach. If they hit the ground going this fast, this drill will amount to nothing.
"Please sit up. Check the security of your area. Any loose or sharp objects should be removed and placed in a safe place such as a seat pocket. Flight attendants brief helpers at exits. Appel aux hôtesses. Préparez la cabine pour l'atterrissage."
The last part of the announcement is clipped by a sudden noise and vibration over the wing. The air brakes have been deployed and now the whole frame is shaking. Lewis catches a brief glimpse of the cockpit as the lead flight attendant opens the door. There is no obvious fire, but the gray-white smoke in the cockpit is dense. The pilots are wearing heavy oxygen masks and smoke goggles. They are working frantically with checklists, scanning gauges and switches. He can see them shouting to try to communicate.
"Where?" someone yells. "Where are we landing?"
Lewis looks outside, where dawn has begun to unravel the night's grip on the continent below. What was an indistinct mass is now a deeply textured green. Land? Of course, it looks soft, a verdant carpet of luxurious tropical plant life. It is easy to imagine lying down there in a soft whisper of ferns and yellow birds, but clearly this is a forest below them, a canopy of trees, great trunks of hardwood. At ten thousand feet they are already in the forest's embrace. The patches of white cloud that race by almost have a sound to them, like showers of hailstones. A road appears, like a bright reddish-brown rip in the green fabric, and then passes behind them. At four thousand feet the plane passes over the great curve of a brown river that flashes faintly in the dawn, and then another red gash.
The engines spool up and down now as the pilots struggle with the difficult approach, making rapid corrections. A hint of the sharp smoke invades the cabin. It smells toxic -- burning rubber or plastic.
"Please do not be alarmed." Alarmed. It's a strange word in the Frenchman's mouth. It sounds as if it is being eaten whole. "We will be landing soon. Flight attendants will signal when it's time to assume the brace position by shouting, 'Brace!' Remain in the brace position until the airplane has completely stopped."
The landing gear rumbles into position, and the plane slows further. Their attitude is less nose down, and the terrific noise of the air rushing outside has calmed down. At about three hundred feet a flight attendant comes over the intercom.
"Brace! Courage! Baissez la tête! Brace!"
Lewis watches as the cabin obeys, everyone bent over like puppets with their strings cut. The businessman bends over his knees. His face is slack with fear, and he is praying. The words fall from his mouth with the faint smell of alcohol. His toiletries are gripped tightly in his hands, as if for some final ablutions. The African man's hands look powerful and strong on the seat in front of him. The flight attendant closest to Lewis notices him still sitting up.
"Brace!" she shouts. He leans forward, but he cannot take his eyes away from the window. The trees seem smaller than he thought, but he realizes that his sense of scale is off, that they must rise a hundred feet or more. They pass a road and a fence at about the time they come level with the treetops.
"Brace! Baissez la tête! Heads down!"
"Not until I see pavement," Lewis thinks aloud, as the blur of trees reaches up under the belly of the airplane as if trying to grab them, pull them down. Then the pavement is there, cracked and overgrown with weeds. Lewis puts his head down.
He closes his eyes, anticipating the impact like a child who left his body in a dream or nightmare and is now falling back at the realization that he cannot fly. He breathes in deeply and holds it. The plane hits the ground hard and twists sickeningly to the left, popping open several overhead bins as the engines thunder deafeningly in reverse, trying to slow the tin rocket.
As the pilot brakes, the pull of inertia threatens to rip Lewis from his seat, and all of the baggage that fell from the overheads on impact now flies forward, violently striking the terrified flight attendant who has belted herself to the forward jump seat.
The runway is rougher than it looked, and the pilot has trouble keeping the plane straight. The plane shakes and vibrates desperately as the pilot tries to slow its reckless speed. Lewis lifts his head to see what he can. Alongside the black asphalt runway the dirt is blood red. Suddenly there is a terrific noise, and then, as a reward for his temerous curiosity, Lewis is slammed into the seat in front of him like a rag doll. There are a few shouts, barely audible above the incredible sound of the front landing gear failing. The plane lurches violently forward, eliciting more screams from the passengers, then comes to rest, and it is awesomely quiet except for the sound of bottles rolling through broken glass in the aisles.
The turbines wind down, as they would upon a normal arrival. The cabin is in chaos, debris scattered everywhere. As if caught between heartbeats, no one moves, expecting another blow. Then a child crying somewhere in the back restarts the order of things. Suddenly in many languages the passengers shout and yell and thank god. The flight attendant at the bulkhead struggles stiffly to get out of her seat. Around her battered legs is the scattered garbage of the carry-ons, an odd collection of bottles of wine and liquor from Duty Free, cameras, cards, hairbrushes, lipstick and broken vials of perfume.
"Someone's hurt here! For god's sake, someone is hurt," comes a shout from the back.
Lewis watches the hurt flight attendant approach the exit. Her eyes are red from crying, and already her cheek is swelling where she was hit. She looks out the window, with an arm stretched out to keep people away, something she has learned in a drill, then she rapidly clears the door. Warm air pours into the cabin, condensing and creating a lush steam. There is the fantastically loud hiss of the emergency evacuation slide inflating.
"Release your seat belts and get out!"
All around Lewis, passengers are already unbuckling. "Sortez par la sortie en avant. Vite!" The flight attendants yell at passengers to leave their things and get out. "Sortez maintenant! Vite vite vite!"
Lewis jumps onto the slide behind the businessman. The drop down the slick yellow slide is quick and he's glad to have someone to catch his hand as he lands. A young man with wide eyes waves them to a gathering place just past the wing tip. His urgency has everyone running, but Lewis lets the others hurry by. Now that his feet are on the ground, the emergency seems over to him. The tropical air feels good.
He turns when he reaches the group and looks back at the fallen jet. A faint blue haze of smoke hovers over the main wheels. The nose is dipped from the partially collapsed front landing gear. Otherwise the airplane doesn't appear significantly damaged; at least, there is no obvious fuel spill. There are no buildings along the runway, no airport. Some of the grass growing out of the cracks in the tarmac is quite tall. The runway obviously hasn't been used for a long time. There might be a road entering at the far end; otherwise on all sides the forest looms, cut back to a perfect sharp border, yielding just enough room for the pavement and a fifty-yard swath on each side, which has grown back almost chest deep in some places.
One of the flight attendants is kneeling by a big red-haired Dutch man who has injured his head. She drops strips of bloodied gauze on the pavement. His eyes are red, and his black suit is wrinkled, his face wet with tears. A bright green and blue bird sails over the passengers' heads and then settles on the tip of the airplane's wing and flaps its own as if gloating.
The flight crew walk slowly away from their wrecked airship; they seem both elated to have made the landing and shaken up by it. The captain checks to see that the flight attendant has what she needs to help the injured man, and then he approaches the group of more than two hundred passengers. He looks over the faces of those closest to him. They are waiting to hear when they can get back on the plane and how soon they will be taking off again. He has to shout to deliver his message, first in French, then in English.
"The situation in the cockpit, an uncontained fire, was very serious, and it was critical that we get the aircraft on the ground immediately, wherever possible. We have landed in central Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unfortunately, this runway is not intended for an aircraft of this size. To attempt a takeoff is impossible. Air traffic control was advised of our position and circumstances. It is important that everyone stay in the immediate vicinity of the aircraft. I'll give an update in about a half hour when we have more information."
The Congo. Lewis almost says the word aloud. For him it's not a name that conjures images of an actual country, a real place, more of an ominous river coiled in a hostile jungle -- dark tales of misadventure whispered by a seaman who counts himself lucky to have survived. Lewis looks up at the sky, but the clouds have closed it off. They are so low now that they seem to be dragging in the tops of the highest trees. That's something to be thankful for, he thinks, that the clouds held off, long enough for them to find the field and make this landing. Around him many of the passengers have sat down on the pavement, and they are looking up, too, as if trying to decide whether this could be called unfair.
He wanders a few yards along the edge of the cracked tarmac, away from the group. His white dress shirt clings in the damp current of air that drifts up the runway like the soft breath of the rainforest. The green lushness contrasts vividly with the withering autumn he left behind, and it feels good to rest his eyes on this exuberant wilderness. He thinks of Helen, who has always delighted in a lavish tropical breeze, and vacations on the beach that left him biting his lip. He tries to remember what country she went to with WorldAid, long before he met her, some remote place, a jungle like this, wild and humid
He looks out at the wall of vegetation before him. A breeze animates the tops of the towering hardwood trees and trembles in the thick green bush below. It occurs to him that when Helen talked about Burma, she never mentioned what it looked like or felt like, how beautiful it must have been. She talked about the people, her enthusiasm to help, the feeling that their efforts felt largely irrelevant to the crushing weight of poverty they were fighting. What will she think when she finds out about this accident? There's no excuse for how he left things with her. He shakes his head and looks down at the warm, crumbling asphalt. Under better circumstances she could laugh about it, find a little irony in his being stranded like this; maybe she'd make a joke that he has earned this banishment.
About a hundred yards down the field, the captain and the second officer find an old set of air stairs that must have been abandoned with the runway. It's half buried in the grass and covered with rust. A couple of passengers help them untangle it from the mass of creepers and twisted weeds that have already laid claim to it. Lewis is about to walk over to help, too, when they manage to pull it loose and wheel it over to the wreck. They pull off the evacuation slide and line the stairs up to the front boarding door. The captain and his crew walk into the plane to a round of applause, wave and go inside to check the status of their equipment and try to make radio contact.
For a while there is a buzz of conversation, as if the passengers anticipate some new development, expect the captain to come out and announce that they've found some surprise solution, the flight engineer has ingeniously rewired the airplane, they're going to be able to take off after all. But he doesn't come out, and time passes slowly like the sullen clouds settling into the treetops.
The deluge comes suddenly, as if released by a clap of thunder. The rain bounces back from the pavement nearly two feet. Instantly, all two hundred passengers are up and running for the shelter of the wing. Water pours off the control edge in waterfalls, and even though the wing is big enough to accommodate everyone, the tarmac is flooded with half an inch of water within minutes. The air is heavy with the scent of the rich red mud at the edge of the runway. Everyone is left standing, looking out at the gray torrent, getting wet despite the overhead cover.
"Laissez nous réembarquer sur l'avion!"
"Let us back on the airplane!" someone repeats in English. One of the flight attendants pokes his head out of the door.
"Laissez nous réembarquer sur l'avion!" another passenger yells. A chorus of voices shout in agreement. The flight attendant says something to the captain, who has joined her. It is still raining, but the initial downpour has settled into a faint mist. Some of the children have already ventured into it and are playing on the slippery evacuation slide that extends down from the wing.
After a few minutes, the flight crew decide to let the passengers back on. They stand at the front door and make people take their original seats, and by the time everyone is on board again, the cabin is so humid that the walls sweat and the windows fog up. Lewis clears his with his wet hands just enough to see that the rain shower has now completely stopped.
It's uncomfortably hot in the cabin, even without the sun. He looks up at the flight attendant, who again stands by the door as if guarding it. Ahead of him, the African man sits calmly, his hands in his lap, his eyes gently closed. Most of the passengers seem so relieved to be back on the plane, they act as if they have already been rescued. The loud mix of voices and laughter coming from the main cabin sounds more like a cocktail party than the aftermath of a plane crash. The flight attendants have begun passing out drinks in first and business class, as if these were at least reasonably normal circumstances.
"What would you like to drink, sir?"
Lewis looks up at the young man incredulously. Then it occurs to him that there is nothing else to do, really. He's glad to be back on the airplane, especially glad to be in first class and seated by himself. "Just some ice," he says.
The attendant meticulously scoops the ice into a cup and neatly hands it to him with a napkin and snack and moves on. Lewis tilts the glass back and lets the ice tumble into his mouth. It melts slowly as he looks out again at the new world. The sun is already out, burning the rain off the runway in a thin vapor. Lewis watches it shift in and out of the clouds.
He closes his eyes and lays a hand against the damp glass of the window and imagines his seven-year-old son, Shane, at his mother-in-law's house in Spokane, sitting before the dining room window with his hands resting on the cool glass. Helen sits at the table, sifting through bills, the reassuring sound near him of shuffling paper. Shane leans his face against the window, which trembles faintly with evidence of the outside world. He is listening to the rain, feeling the patter of it with the tips of his fingers. He has been blind since birth.
The hall of the maternity ward was empty at four-thirty the morning after he was born. There was no one to see Lewis alone with him, to see this tall young man looking so helpless, his own brown eyes lost in the long shadows of the corridor. He held his baby, and he worried that he wasn't up to this -- to be father to a blind child. He felt wholly unprepared. Love, the kind of love a son would need from a father, could not be taken for granted. It would require something more than just empathy or a facile sense of obligation to do what is right. The numbness he felt could merely be shock. It would fade. But sometimes when Shane played with his toys, especially when he was very young, he was unable to find a toy that was inches away from him, and watching him grope for it became unbearable. Even though he knew that Shane had to find it on his own, if he ever was to learn, Lewis would give up first and put it in his small hand and then quietly stand up. Perhaps he was guilty of the obvious mistake of putting too much faith in the seen world. He would walk away and believe, because Shane could not see him, that the boy could not hear his footsteps receding down the hall.
He tried to make up for it in other ways. When he lay Shane in his crib, he reassured himself that he could work hard and provide Shane with all the things his genes had deprived him of. He jumped at the new job with Coke, even though it meant a lot more travel. He knew from the moment when Helen first caressed Shane's face that she was braver than he. She left the seeing world out of it and loved Shane with touch and sound. He was always in her arms, and in the beginning this was a relief for Lewis. She could hold their son for his whole life, enough for both of them.
The businessman interrupts his thoughts.
"They should be telling us something. We have a right to know what's going on."
"I guess they're trying to figure that out."
"So what do we do? Spend eternity sitting on this damn airplane?"
"There's not much out there."
"I want a plan. I want to know what the plan is."
The businessman leans closer. Lewis can smell his breath, sharp with fear. "I wish this was an American flight. At least they'd speak goddamn English. It probably wouldn't have happened, either." He gives a conspiratorial nod that says, We're us, we are Americans, and thank God for that, at least.
Some passengers have gone back to sleep. The woman in front of him looks like she is dreaming. Her hands are moving faintly as if she is fending something off. The orange juice on her tray shakes quietly over her lap. The African man is reading, calmly turning pages. Lewis can hear the soft jingle of the service trays in the back. The children have quieted down, too. It is just still enough in the front cabin to hear some of the forest sounds -- a bird calling, and the delicate buzz of insects warming up with the sun.
"We'd have been there in two hours, if this hadn't happened," says the businessman, petulantly. He looks at his watch as if doubting that such an outcome was ever taken for granted.
Lewis tumbles the last bit of ice from the glass into his mouth, relishing its coolness. He leans his head back against the pillow. As long as the ice holds up, it'll be all right.
Then someone yells from the back, and the excitement spreads through the cabin. "Ils arriveront!"
"They're coming, they're coming."
Three or four military jeeps approach the plane from the opposite end of the runway, racing like the cavalry charging over the hill. The jeeps are old, the soldiers in them are dressed in a hodgepodge of military uniforms, some even appear to have feather headdresses more like women's hats than helmets, and most of them are very young. There is not an ambulance or fire truck among them, the kind of emergency vehicle that might be of some use. Lewis can't resist the traditional superior response, the thought that they still haven't learned how we do things.
"Please remain seated while the captain greets the rescue crew. When we disembark it will be by section. Until then, please, you must remain in your seats."
The jeeps screech to a halt, and the soldiers jump out and run to the exits. The captain has emerged from the cockpit, buttoning the cuffs of his uniform. He smiles as the commander of the rescuers approaches the open forward door.
"Je vous en prie; l'escalier n'est pas parfait." The captain chuckles uncomfortably at his own joke about the condition of the ramp, which is two feet too low for the door.
But there's no response, and he has to back up quickly to get out of the way as the commander enters with two young soldiers, each with a different make of automatic weapon and mismatched uniform. The commander steps past the captain to the first row of seats. He is much older than the others, in his forties maybe. He isn't tall, at least six inches shorter than the French pilot just behind him. His eyes are tired despite the anger set in his jaw, and he looks, if not for the handgun gripped tightly in his fist, like anyone who feels uncomfortable making speeches in front of a group.
The cabin gives a cheer of welcome, which quickly dies out as one of the guards knocks loudly on the closed cockpit door.
"Ouvrez la porte!" He swings his rifle to hit the door, but the copilot is already opening it, and it swings back at him with amazing speed, hitting him in the face as it bounces violently shut. He opens the door again, slowly, then sits down, holding his bleeding nose, and the third pilot quickly switches off the radio and removes his headset. The soldier chases them both out and shuts the door on the empty cockpit. They find seats near where the captain is standing. He starts to say something to the commander, who simply ignores him.
The commander compensates for whatever stage fright he might be experiencing by shouting. He doesn't bother to translate his heavily accented French. Through the whole speech, the woman in front of Lewis stares out the window. When the commander finishes, he leaves one of the soldiers by the door and walks slowly down the center aisle. He stops to question the African man, not in French, but in Lingala. Lewis cannot hear the response, but the commander snaps something back and then walks on. The flight attendant steps into the galley, staring at the floor, trying to be invisible.
Everyone is careful not to meet the commander's gaze. Lewis, too, avoids his eyes, but glances up at his face as he passes. There are scars on his cheeks, symmetrical, inch-long diagonal lines clearly put there purposefully. He has the strong, acrid, sweaty smell of a man who has been working in the tropical heat, and his boots make muddy red tracks on the carpet. He takes fifteen minutes to make the trip to the rear of the plane. He stations the second soldier by the aft exit. When he returns, he has three or four passports from different countries in his hand. He stops where he made his speech and looks over the cabin, which is silent.
Then he turns to the captain. "Venez avec moi."
The captain obeys, standing stiffly, trying not to make too much of his superior height. He stoops under the door frame as they leave.
The soldier left to guard the door leans casually against the bulkhead, and after the commander leaves in his jeep, he motions to the flight attendant. "Coca-cola."
Lewis looks up.
"Do you want ice? Du glace?" the flight attendant politely offers.
The soldier shakes his head, and opens the drink with a soft pop, obviously very pleased with his assignment.
Copyright © 2003 by Marcus Stevens