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On the Universal Rights of Ducks and Girls by Tara Campbell


With “On the Universal Rights of Ducks and Girls,” Tara Campbell delivers a master class in control. Each craft choice serves the narrative: the epistolary form is a sharp fit for the content, and the decision to make the emails one-sided gives us a rich off-page tension; the dean’s voice, formal and careful in the tone and rhetoric of administrative-speak, recognizable and relatable to all, is amplified by the unusual content of the conversation; a sly, dark humor pervades this piece, yet is never pushed beyond the boundary established by the voice. There are many layers to this piece! Campbell’s combination of form and voice provide a unique frame on not just one but a series of important issues (see the author’s note for an illuminating discussion of the inspiration for this piece, a tale unto itself steeped in horror and ducks). We haven’t read a recent submission that so expertly handles what occurs off the page. The result, a man taking the view of what a teenage girl witnessed and forcing us to to see it through his eyes—literally taking her voice—is a powerful craft decision. Yes, this story is about duck rape. And so much more. In Dean Worthington’s words, “You might consider this a crystalline glimpse into how things are, and have always been: the natural order of the world.”  —CRAFT

 

From: worthingtons@wilburton.orgMar 18, 2019

To: val_perkins@gmail.com

Dear Mrs. Perkins,

Thank you for your e-mail informing us of the incident that has upset your daughter Dolores.

What you describe in your e-mail as “duck rape” must have been bewildering for a young lady to see for the first time, but I assure you that it is a natural process. It occurs periodically in the spring, during years when the population of drakes exceeds the customary number, and there are not enough females with which they may reproduce. I assure you that the duck population remains healthy, and that there is no reason for concern. Nature finds a way!

Dolores’s instructors inform me that she has been performing very well in her first year at Wilburton Academy, and that she is well-liked among her peers. Starting at a new high school as a sophomore, when everyone else has already had an opportunity to acclimatize, presents its own set of challenges; but it is my hope that in the long run, Dolores will remember what she witnessed on the banks of our beautiful stream as merely part of her adjustment to a new environment.

If she has additional concerns, she may wish to speak with her biology instructor for more information.

Sincerely,

Samuel Worthington, PhD

Dean of Student Affairs

Wilburton Academy
Room 103 Ledyard Hall
Princeton ’88
Yale ’83
Wilburton ’79


 

From: worthingtons@wilburton.orgApr 5, 2019

To: val_perkins@gmail.com

Dear Ms. Perkins (my apologies),

Thank you for your clarification of the situation regarding Dolores and what she witnessed on our campus eco-habitat. As distressing as it may be to witness forced copulation among ducks, I assure you it is quite natural. Male ducks are merely following their mating instincts, and as strange as it may seem to us, it is not unusual for multiple male ducks to hold one female down for purposes of penetration. Regrettably.

But as our science faculty has explained to Dolores, and now at length to me, the female does have a means of defense against unwanted fertilization. Even though the drake’s sexual organ is, as you report, “long and corkscrew-shaped with ridges and [in some cases] tooth-like protrusions to ensure penetration,” I hope Dolores also explained to you, as her biology instructor tells me he explained to her, that the female duck’s sexual organs have evolved to avoid insemination during unwanted copulation. I hope that Dolores is aware of the twists and turns that the duck vagina has developed over time, a labyrinthine maze, and although unwanted ducks may gain entry, so to speak, no one but her chosen mate, her Theseus if you will, may slay the Minotaur of insemination.

I hope your daughter can truly take hope in the intricacies of the natural world unfolding right on our campus.

Sincerely,

Samuel Worthington, PhD

Dean of Student Affairs

Wilburton Academy
Room 103 Ledyard Hall
Princeton ’88
Yale ’83
Wilburton ’79


 

From: worthingtons@wilburton.orgApr 17, 2019

To: val_perkins@gmail.com

Dear Ms. Perkins,

Yes, you are correct that Wilburton Academy has only been a coeducational institution for the past several years of our long history, but I assure you that we are every bit as committed to welcoming our female students as we are to maintaining our fine tradition of academic excellence.

I also assure you that Dolores’s biology instructor did not mean to be dismissive of Dolores when he told her, as you say, “that’s just the way it is.” I will grant you that “Drakes will be drakes” was uncalled for, and surely meant as a bit of levity during a difficult conversation. But I do appreciate that it was not appropriate, and I will speak to him about it this week.

I would just like to request that on your side, you would discourage her from using the term “duck rape,” as this is a matter of biology, and not sociology or criminal justice. I understand that she is emotional about this issue, but there is also an element of academic rigor to consider.

Best,

Samuel Worthington, PhD

Dean of Student Affairs

Wilburton Academy
Room 103 Ledyard Hall
Princeton ’88
Yale ’83
Wilburton ’79


 

From: worthingtons@wilburton.orgApr 26, 2019

To: val_perkins@gmail.com

Ms. Perkins,

It has come to my attention that Dolores has begun a protest action on our campus, upsetting quite a number of our faculty and some of our students. I must ask you to speak with her. Surely, you’ve seen her protest sign, as I cannot imagine she could hide a five-foot by three-foot poster reading “Stop Duck Rape Now!” on her way to and from home.

Yes, the—incidents—do continue to happen this season, but I must remind you that it is not a given every year. I sincerely hope that Dolores will not have to witness nature at work next spring, since it distresses her so.

I would be happy to set up a meeting with you and Mr. Perkins to discuss further.

Samuel Worthington, PhD

Dean of Student Affairs

Wilburton Academy
Room 103 Ledyard Hall
Princeton ’88
Yale ’83
Wilburton ’79


 

From: worthingtons@wilburton.orgMay 2, 2019

To: val_perkins@gmail.com

Dear Ms. Perkins,

I appreciate the opportunity to sit down with you and your husband Mr. Evans (again, mea culpa). Regarding your suggestion that we attempt to control the population of drakes so as to mitigate forced copulation, I regret to report that, as anticipated, the proposal did not go very far with the administration.

Alumni, trustees, and yes, donors, have fond memories of Wilburton Academy, and a robust population of mallards is as much part of the Wilburton tradition as the rampant lion on our coat of arms. Violence is regrettable—abhorrent—but this is something quite different. This is merely nature. Nature, as God intended. You might consider this a crystalline glimpse into how things are, and have always been: the natural order of the world.

Civilization, Ms. Perkins, is what separates us from the animals. What keeps us in check. Perhaps we can reframe this as a powerful lesson for Dolores, and for all of us. We, fortunately, are not ducks. What befalls those poor female ducks on the grassy banks of the Wilburton Stream will not befall her as long as she has the protections of civilization, and surrounds herself with honorable young men. Male ducks, and male humans, may vary, but young women, like those courageous female ducks, have ways of protecting themselves.

You will see I have attached a PDF pamphlet from our Student Affairs Office that includes sexual assault prevention tips for young women. This may be where her preoccupation with the duck situation stems. I urge you to share this information with her.

Sincerely,

Samuel Worthington, PhD

Dean of Student Affairs

Wilburton Academy
Room 103 Ledyard Hall
Princeton ’88
Yale ’83
Wilburton ’79

Attachment: Where_Do_I_Fit_In_-_A_Girls_Guide_to_Wilburton.pdf


 

From: worthingtons@wilburton.orgMay 7, 2019

To: val_perkins@gmail.com

Ms. Perkins,

I must insist that Dolores stop speaking with media regarding what she’s now calling “Duck-gate.” We were very happy to accept Dolores into our community on a generous scholarship in the fall, and the trustees are very displeased that their beneficence has been repaid in this most unfortunate manner.

Yes, of course I am aware of the situations referenced in your last e-mail. Those students have since graduated and are no longer an issue. Satisfactory agreements with all parties have been reached, and we would appreciate your cooperation in moving on, as we all wish to.

Not all ducks, Ms. Perkins. And not all boys.

Samuel Worthington, PhD

Dean of Student Affairs

Wilburton Academy
Room 103 Ledyard Hall
Princeton ’88
Yale ’83
Wilburton ’79


 

From: Jimeneza@wilburton.orgMay 29, 2019

To: val_perkins@gmail.com, d.perkins@wilburton.org

Dear Ms. Perkins and Dolores,

Thank you for taking the time to meet with me this week. I wanted to follow up with you on what we discussed. The required paperwork has been filed, so I’m now officially filling in for Dean Worthington while he’s on leave.

This week we began speaking with our regional ecologists and wetlands specialists to see what measures might be taken in regard to balancing the duck population. I’m not sure what may come of our inquiries, but I can tell you, they were surprised—it was apparently the first time anyone from Wilburton had ever asked.

We’ve also engaged an outside consultant for gender equity training, which will be required for all faculty, staff, and students. We look forward to expanding programming in additional areas of inclusion such as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.

I greatly appreciate your assistance in letting us know what we can do to create a more welcoming campus environment for ALL of our students.

Thank you, Dolores.

Most Sincerely,

Alva Jimenez

Associate Dean, Acting Dean of Student Affairs
Wilburton Academy

 


TARA CAMPBELL is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. She received her MFA from American University in 2019. Prior and upcoming publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, The Masters Review, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Booth, and Strange Horizons. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution, and two collections, Circe’s Bicycle and Midnight at the Organporium. Her newest book, Political AF: A Rage Collection, will be released by Unlikely Books in August.

 

Author’s Note

Yes, Virginia, duck rape is actually a thing.

It IS a thing, and I witnessed it for the first time during my senior year of college.

It was a sunny day in spring semester, and everyone was winding down for the year, lying on blankets or playing Hacky Sack (this was back in the early 90s mind you) by the little stream that ran through campus. I was on my way to the library to work on a paper when I heard this splashing and saw a tangle of duck bodies in the stream. When the ducks parted, I realized that it had been multiple males holding a female, pinning her wings and keeping her head under water while a male mated with her.

This first act was upsetting enough, but then in a second attack, two males broke a female’s neck when they tried the same maneuver on land. Suddenly this beautiful, carefree day was cast under a pall of violence. Then it got even worse: We realized that the female already had ducklings that were now orphaned. A faculty member approached carrying a box, saying she had an incubator at home. While I still couldn’t move, other students gathered up the ducklings, not really knowing which females they belonged to, but wanting to make sure they were safe and fed.

Obviously that moment stuck with me—here we were, young men and women on a coed campus, witnessing this rape/murder/orphaning, but because it was “just ducks” there was nothing to be done. It was simply nature, after all. So why did it make me feel sick to my stomach? Why does it still? Why do all cases of male animals’ violent sexual behavior, like dolphin rape (they’re real assholes), and lions killing other lions’ cubs so they can mate with the lionesses, make me angry? Why do I feel a sense of vengeance when I think about female praying mantises eating their lovers’ heads?

I’ve tried writing about this before, but it didn’t really go anywhere in a traditional prose format. In May, I took a Bending Genres workshop with Tyler Barton that focused on Artifact Literature, meaning using existing formats like letters, labels, posters, etc. to tell a story. The prompt was to tell a story through a letter, so I decided to take this topic that had been occupying my mind, sexual violence in the animal world, and try to tell it through emails.

That specific inspiration came from a story by my wonderfully talented friend Karen Keating that was written in the form of emails. Her story made me think more deeply about how we can use nontraditional formats to shape a conflict with not only what’s on the page, but what’s not on the page. This formal shift was what it took to process the jarring dismay of a duck rape witnessed decades ago in a story that made it out into the world.

 


TARA CAMPBELL is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. She received her MFA from American University in 2019. Prior and upcoming publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, The Masters Review, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Booth, and Strange Horizons. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution, and two collections, Circe’s Bicycle and Midnight at the Organporium. Her newest book, Political AF: A Rage Collection, will be released by Unlikely Books in August.