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.