The Wood Duck by James Thurber, 1936
The magic trick:
Stepping back and letting the story breathe
So much of Thurber’s work is angled for a specific response. Here’s the joke – laugh now! Here’s the concept – laugh now! Here comes the hi-jinx – laugh now!
“The Wood Duck” is not like that at all, and yet it still feels very Thurber-esque. The story doesn’t angle one way or another at all. That’s kind of the point. There is no big humorous moment. Also conspicuous in its absence is Thurber’s rage. What’s left is a simple story about stuff that happens sometimes some places. No more, no less. And that’s quite a trick on Thurber’s part.
I turned into the driveway and put the brakes on hard. I had seen, just in time, a duck. It was a small, trim duck, and even I, who know nothing of wild fowl, knew that this was no barnyard duck. This was a wild duck. He was all alone. There was no other bird of any kind around, not even a chicken. He was immensely solitary. With none of the awkward waddling of a domestic duck, he kept walking busily around in the driveway, now and then billing up water from a dirty puddle in the middle of the drive. His obvious contentment, his apparently perfect adjustment to his surroundings, struck me as something of a marvel.
I got out of the car and spoke about it to a man who had driven up behind me in a rattly sedan. He wore a leather jacket and high, hard boots, and I figured he would know what kind of duck this was. He did. “That’s a wood duck,” he said. “It dropped in here about two weeks ago, Len says, and has been here ever since.”