The signal word in Clea Young’s “Dock Day” is “treason.” In Young’s hands, this term takes on layers of meaning and implication over the course of what is a very short story indeed: unfolding over little more than six pages and related mostly in dialogue, “Dock Day” is a miniature marvel.
The story shuttles back and forth between two groups of people: a quartet of children playing in and around the shallows of a freshwater lake, and their parents sipping drinks and chatting on the dock. In brief, elliptical snippets, Young provides the context for the relationships among these characters and offers a teasing glimpse at the betrayals and power dynamics they engage in.
The first appearance of the word treason comes early, in the opening section, and carries with it the word’s most obvious, political connotation, albeit in a comically debased context. The children are arguing over who among them will be declared ruler of the small plot of shoreline they have claimed for themselves. The oldest boy wastes no time appointing himself king, supposedly because he “knows about castles and kingdoms.” He picks a bunch of elderberries, which he refers to as “death berries,” and declares that anyone who has committed treason must eat them. He then accuses the queen – who is queen by default, being the only girl in the group – of disloyalty.
What Young provides here is, on one hand, a burlesque of courtly ritual and political intrigue and, on the other, a sly comment on power dynamics and gender relations. For it is the girl who is accused of treason – one of the other boys outright refuses to participate in the game and the third boy is passed over for censure. The king provides no evidence of his queen’s treasonous actions, merely levels the accusation then demands proof of loyalty when she refutes the charge.
This may all appear like harmless childhood fun, but Young is canny in implying that the ingrained attitudes of childhood can carry over into adult life. The two couples on the dock – Dallas and Anne and Tom and Rebecca – carry on a conversation that revolves around issues of loyalty, both emotional and literal. The dialogue starts off in an explicitly sexual realm, with Anne baring her breast to draw attention to a suspicious mole she has found (the conflation of sex and illness here adds another level of implication to the situation).
The discussion involves elements of nastiness and recrimination: Anne is taken aback when Rebecca confesses that her husband told her that childbirth had rendered her breasts into “saggy little prunes.” And Rebecca needles her husband about a woman she suspects he is sexually attracted to, which leads to a loaded exchange about infidelity: “‘You’re the kind of woman who’d kick me out for thinking the wrong thing,’ says Tom. ‘Then what are you still doing here?’ says Rebecca.”
Young conflates the adult conversation about loyalty in a sexual context with the children’s play acting on the shore; in case the point was missed, when Tom and Rebecca go off together in a rowboat, the author has Rebecca remark, “I feel like the queen of this place.” In this way, Rebecca is explicitly associated with the young girl, who is named queen and then immediately deemed disloyal.
The girl refuses to eat the death berries and is exiled – told to walk away until she is out of sight. “But how will she find her way back?” asks the youngest boy in the group. To which the king responds with authority: “Girls never go far.”
That the king is wrong about this should come as no surprise and the girl displays determination in walking away from the group, charting her own path to independence, though there are implications that this path will not be easy for her and will be strewn with all manner of danger. As she walks out of sight of the group, a scab on her arm that she has been picking at begins to bleed. She eventually comes across a clearing where an abandoned, rundown cabin lies empty. She crawls among the shards of the ruined building – taking refuge in a place “where the sun doesn’t reach” – and she repeats the word that sent her there in the first place: treason.
Though nothing explicitly awful happens to the young girl, the details Young provides are foreboding; the suggestion is that her life will be marked by danger and much of that danger will result from the actions of boys in her life. The image of the abandoned cabin festooned with rotting beams and rusty nails recalls the milieu of horror films and the repetition of the loaded word treason resonates with meaning. As she listens to the adults call her name while they search for her, she licks at the blood on her arm and crouches among the shadows in her broken down castle. Who has been disloyal here, the reader is asked to consider. The king? The adults who paid no attention while one of their children wandered off? Or the world, symbolized by the cabin with its threats of pain and violence, just waiting for an unsuspecting girl to wander into its maw?