“‘Every Barleycorn a King'”

—Frank R. Stockton

On the other side of the blind we have a dog that wants the duck because there is something in its dogginess that makes its synapses skitter and its heart quake at sensing the duckiness of a duck.  The dog is a medium-sized, short-haired, flag-eared mongrel of a common brownish hue, the color—not coincidentally—of a top-selling brand of dog food.  The duck is small, a female duck (perhaps) of indistinct features, beyond those of its duckiness.

On this side of the blind, we have a dog that wants the duck because the dog on the other side of the blind wants it.  There is something in its dogginess that causes its synapses to skitter and its heart to quicken at sensing that the dogginess of the dog on the far side has as its primary desire the possession, if only in transference, of the duck.  A medium-sized working breed, the dog on this side is thick-haired and predominantly black.  Needless to say, the black dog does not have any opinion as to the particularities of the duck; its interest lies principally in the apprehension, training, and distance from the duck of the brown dog.

In contrast—and if given the choice—the brown dog would prefer a mallard or even a gander, something a little more colorful or weighty than the duck floating listless on the pond before us, the duck that, despite its woody dullness, now has every command of the brown dog’s attention.

The duck itself is attuned to both dogs’ desires and proximity, and so it keeps a healthy distance from the shore, possessed of the knowledge that as a wild and “free” creature in a world of discipline and regulation—laws not of nature but of opportunity—that is, wise to the ways of dogs—its survival depends on the vector projected between itself and the dogs on either side of the blind.  The duck’s very existence, such as it is, amounts to nothing more than a simple, albeit barbaric, decision on the part of the flap-eared black dog, which itself is contingent on the ability of the brown dog to keep its instinct in check.  We have, then, the classic stand-off—tragedy or triumph—imposed upon a moment’s dithering.

The young man who owns the dogs is not ten feet away from either one, sitting on a camp stool in what is known (appropriately enough) as the “blind.”  His twenty-gauge, pump-action Remington shotgun, which he inherited from his grandfather, is leaning against the most upright support of nylon netting strung with fabric leaves.  The gun is  loaded with birdshot.  The man is dressed hat-to-boot in camo.  He hasn’t noticed the duck.  He has just finished reading “The Lady, or the Tiger?” a required text for his Intro to Literature class, which will satisfy the General Education component of his degree in criminal justice.  He’d downloaded the story from Project Gutenberg onto his iPhone.  But he doesn’t get it.  What’s behind the door on the right—the right door—which the princess had indicated to her ill-fated lover?  And why doesn’t the author tell us?

About Phillip Sterling

Phillip Sterling is the author of In Which Brief Stories Are Told, a collection of short fiction (Wayne State University Press), Mutual Shores (poetry), and four chapbook length series of poems, the most recent of which is And for All This: Poems from Isle Royale (Ridgeway Press 2015). His story “kidnappingtax.blogspot.gov” won the 2015 Monstrosities of the Midway contest, and his entry “Angels, We Have Heard” won the 3rd Annual Charles Dickens Christmas Fiction Contest sponsored by Michiganders Post. A new book of poetry, titled And Then Snow, is scheduled for release from Main Street Rag Press in spring 2017. Many of his flash fiction pieces can be found online.