“Kill your darlings,” is a quote by Stephen King. No, it was William Faulkner. No, it was Agatha Christie. No, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Well, of course, they all said it, but the first use of the construction appeared in print a hundred years ago by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who urged wannabe writers to murder their darlings. (Quiller-Couch was the inspiration for Rat in “The Wind in the Willows.” It’s amazing the things you can find out with a bit of research!)
By definition, darlings — those parts of our manuscripts that we love even when they serve no purpose — are painful to kill, but some are more painful than others. Originally, More Deaths Than One was designed to be a series of stories told to Bob Stark (so named to remind me that he seems an ordinary fellow, but is stark of speech). It was through listening to the various stories that he was to discover the truth about himself, but though the idea had merit, the first draft was terrible. Bob barely surfaced in his own story, and the storytellers themselves seemed disembodied. I rewrote the book several times, trying to find the right way to tell the story, but it wasn’t until the fourth draft when I gave Bob a love interest, a waitress he met at a coffee shop, that the story took off. He had someone to butt heads with, someone to ooh and aah over his achievements, someone to be horrified at what had been done to him.
After the story took focus, the original idea of Bob learning about himself from tales told to him had to be scrapped, and some of those darlings were so difficult to kill that although I removed them from the book, I couldn’t delete them permanently.
This painfully mudered darling is set it in Vietnam, but the incident it is based on took place during World War Two. The story is being told to Bob (Sarge) by his journalist friend, William Henry Harrison.
I heard about this kid, a gentle kid, really. He was tall, broad in the shoulders, good-looking, with reddish-gold hair. But what really made him stand out was his smile. He always smiled.
This kid was so thrilled to be doing something for his country that nothing bothered him, not even the climate. Since he was a swamp rat from Louisiana, he felt right at home.
He came from a very large, very poor family who never had enough food; when he was drafted into the army, he felt as if he had won the lottery. He always had plenty to eat and, compared to the meals he had grown up with, it seemed like haute cuisine. He even loved the c-rations, including the ones that everyone else threw away, like ham and lima beans.
He was delighted with his government issue clothes, too. In his entire life, he had never worn anything new or had boots that fit. He felt like a king. No matter what happened, it was better than his life back in the swamps of Louisiana, and he could not help smiling.
His platoon was stationed near a Vietnamese village. Those people hated the Americans, but for some reason they took a liking to this smiling kid. They called him Wa-ky number one. Wa-ky was what they called the Americans, and number one meant the best. They also called him dinky-dao, which means retarded or mentally ill, because he was always smiling. They thought it was the funniest thing that the best American was dinky-dao.
The one person who hated the kid was his sergeant, a really nasty piece of work, who felt he was being mocked by that constant smile.
One day, in a fit of anger, the sergeant took an empty sandbag, and made a crude mask by cutting holes for the eyes and nose. He yanked it over the kid’s head, and snarled, ‘I never want to see your fucking smile again.’
When the kid removed the hood, he was still smiling — he thought it had been a joke. This really infuriated the sergeant. He slammed the butt of his rifle into the kid’s face, grabbed the hood, and jammed it back on the kid’s head, screaming, ‘I’ll kill you, you motherfucker, if you ever take this fucking bag off again.’
After a few days of wearing the hood, a change came over the kid. He would wade into the center of a battle and just let loose as if he thought he were invincible, or as if he no longer cared whether he lived or died. Afterwards, he would bayonet the dead bodies and mash their faces with the butt of his M-l6.
All of this made the sergeant very nervous. He ordered the kid to take off the hood. The kid refused.
As time went on, the man in the hood — you notice I say man, Sarge? That’s because there was nothing left of the kid he once was — got more and more out of control. He would go off by himself to hunt VC, and would return wearing a necklace of still-warm ears. Everyone was scared of the man in hood, particularly the sergeant, who was certain he would be fragged, but the man just ignored them and went about his job of methodically eliminating the VC.
Finally the time came for the man in the hood to be rotated out. That morning he arose, casually took off the hood, folded it neatly, then packed it with the rest of his gear.
Everyone gasped in shock when they saw him — his face was hideously deformed. When the sergeant had butt-stroked the kid, he had destroyed the kid’s left cheek and orbital bone, and they had never been repaired; no one even knew that he had been badly injured.
He still had a smile on his face, however, but this time it was the rictus of pain, or of death.
And his eyes . . . You’ve heard of the thousand yard stare, Sarge? This was a ten thousand-yard stare, as if the man in the hood had looked too long into hell, and now hell was all he knew.
Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+