“Bird Without a Song”
Somewhere near the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam, soon after I held the baby in my arms and felt him die, I began to imagine them. At first they were only quick movements in the corners of my tent but soon I began to see them in front of me. Some faces were clear, Corporal Terwilliger, Major Ayres, Corpsman Cooper, but there were strangers, too, ones I didn’t remember but who were familiar all the same. Some were faces from stretchers on fatigue-shattered nights when flares and panic were stabbing at us. I knew they were dead, too, even without names. There were hundreds of them. Thousands. They stood and waived to me from shadows when no one was around. They were small, and full of life.
“I wonder if this is what heaven is like. You see all your friends again but they’re tiny. I’ll have to ask the little people,” I said to my crew chief one day while sweeping blood out of our chopper. I recognized the stare of concern he gave me. Shrugging, I laughed and pretended to be joking. I never mentioned them again. But they were real to me and, in time they began to talk. Major Ayres was the first to speak. “Tell my girlfriend I loved her,” he said.
“Did they send my Air Medal to my mom?” Corporal Terwilliger asked.
“You didn’t know me, but thanks for bringing my body back from the jungle,” one I didn’t remember said. I told them I would do everything I could to tell everyone they were safe and still alive.
When it was my time to leave, I tried to say good bye.
“We’re coming with you,” they told me in chorus.
“I can’t take you back to the States. Someone would notice.”
“They don’t see us,” Major Ayres argued. He was good at arguing. At his request, I was writing to his girlfriend’s fourth-grade classroom in Virginia to tell her students what Vietnam was like. “We will all fit quite nicely in your sea bag,” the major added.
“Of course. That’s right, Sir. Others don’t see you. But why do you want to come with me?”
“We want to be there when you tell our families we died with honor. When you tell them we’re still here and still love them. You must help keep us alive.”
“But you’re dead, Sir, you all are.”
“Not if you write about us,” a nameless ones said.
My comments and critique
It’s easy to assume that, because of the title of this Kill Zone feature – “First Page Critique,” that criticism is inevitable. That the submitted page is by definition flawed and in need of counsel.
But I’m happy to say that, in my humble opinion, this first page is on fire. It’s a fantastic launch for a novel, and while we can’t quite tell where it’s headed (not a requirement of a first page), we already know that we, like those dead guys that are attaching themselves to our hero, would like to come along for the ride.
What’s worthy of mentioning here, though, with a view of making this stellar page even better, falls more into the category of editing than it does story critique.
The second paragraph benefits from a tweak to the initial dialogue, moving the attribution to an earlier position, and then pushing the closing line (from Major Ayres) to a new paragraph. It’s a mistake to stuff lines of dialogue from different speakers into a single paragraph (not a hard and fast rule, but this one qualifies). And then, there’s another natural paragraph break in the middle, all of these edits contributing to a cleaner read. I’ve rewritten it here:
“I wonder if this is what heaven is like,” I said to my crew chief one day while sweeping blood out of our chopper. “You see all your friends again but they’re tiny. I’ll have to ask the little people.”
I recognized the stare of concern he gave me. Shrugging, I laughed and pretended to be joking. I never mentioned them again. But they were real to me and, in time they began to talk. Major Ayres was the first to speak.
“Tell my girlfriend I loved her,” he said.
The paragraphing was perfect from that point forward, as was the writing and the chill it shoots up the reader’s spine, with echoes of buried themes of war and personal loss emerging from between the lines.
I say.. bravo to this author. Keep going, this is a great start to what we can already tell will be a powerfully dark and personal story, perhaps the stuff of a bestseller someday.
What say you, KZ readers?