A story is a lighthouse, its illumination both temporal and otherworldly; where the light falls is precisely determined and felicitous.
As a watcher on the shore, the reader follows the author’s lambent sweep but also flicks their gaze to the unattended shadows and sometimes finds that the shoreline lengthens into the writer’s life.
An example of fiction’s wrestle with the extraneous truth is counted out with Barbara Baynton (1857-1929). An Australian writer prized for her turn-of-the-century short stories, Baynton’s literary reputation was partially marred by a Victorian censoriousness, which saw her upselling of her modest origins in order to (successfully) upscale her marriage prospects as invalidating the truth of her fiction.
Is the falling star of an author’s biography, the uncertain art of a narratively straightened life, the best light by which to read a story?
Squeaker’s Mate, a short story Baynton published in her collection Bush Studies (1902) is planetary in its specific. A man, Squeaker, and a woman, his ‘Mate’, walk a solitary bush track for their business of wood and honey. Squeaker’s Mate (she is given no other name) carries most, is focused on whatever task is at hand. Her words are like her axe, drawn out only when required. Squeaker carries the least, pretends to the distraction of a bee. His words are a yawing querulous flow.
In a misjudged two-step, Squeaker’s Mate attempts to retrieve her axe caught in the trunk of a tree but is caught under a weakened thick branch. Her back is broken but Squeaker can only burr ineffectively. Help, when it comes, is from the wider society of men and women. Without the quickening of friendship, they soon largely withdraw. Unmoored, Squeaker heads to town. Squeaker’s Mate is left with the insensible loyalty of her dog.
For a contemporary reader, Squeaker’s Mate is like an old unheard song to which you can somehow hum the tune. Its lyricism is familiar and plain: the kickstands of adjectives, the Dickensian onomatopoeia. The sharpening hum is the pitiless slasher film logic at the heart of the story. A woman makes an alliance with an unworthy partner, rescue exists only to be denied and the moral consequence of each action is sure, remorseless.
Biography simply falls away with a story so hard fixed on the precise, cold logic of fear. The specificity of this bush tale is as universal as a dog’s sinking bite.
Squeaker’s Mate is one of 16 short stories in the running for Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2012. Follow the analysis and witty commentary here.