D’Arcy Niland has appeared in my blog before but not in his own right. He was the Australian-born husband of the New Zealand-born Australian writer Ruth Park. I have posted on their collaborative memoir, The drums go bang, and have written specifically about Ruth Park, but have never written specifically on Niland before.
Niland is best known for his novel The shiralee, but he and Park were working writers who made their living from their craft, which means they wrote a lot – radio scripts, journalism, short stories, and novels. My path to his short story, “The parachutist”, though is a bit complicated. Over a decade ago, when my mother-in-law was still alive, I would search for suitable audiobooks for her, by which I mean books that had straightforward narratives, and not too much explicit sex and violence. She was 97 (and legally blind) when she died. A collection of D’Arcy Niland short stories seemed a possibility, but I’m not sure she ever did listen to it. Regardless, it ended back with us after she died, and we finally started listening to it on a recent road trip. The first story is titled, “The parachutist”.
Now with collections, I like to know each story’s origins. I discovered that the audiobook was based on a collection of Niland’s short stories selected by Ruth Park and published by Penguin in 1987. A start, but when did Niland, who died in 1967, write the story? The Penguin book might provide that information, but I don’t have it. However, given that back in Niland and Park’s heyday, newspapers were significant publishers of short stories, I decided to search Trove and, eureka, I found it. Well, that is, I found his story “The pilot”, which turned out to be the same story that was later published as “The parachutist”.
This discovery created another mystery: why the change of title? And when? Again, maybe Ruth Park discusses that in her Penguin introduction but … so, let’s just get on with the story. The plot concerns a predator and its prey. It starts just after a hurricane. A hawk, “ruffled in misery” comes “forth in hunger and ferocity” looking for food, expecting to find some “booty of the storm”. However, there is none, so it widens its search. Niland beautifully captures the devastation of the “ravaged” landscape and weakened hawk’s situation: “Desperate, weak, the hawk alighted on a bleak limb and glared in hate”. It’s vivid, visceral writing – and we feel some sympathy for this hawk.
It spies a dead field mouse, and gobbles it “voraciously”, but it’s not much as food goes, and just makes “the hawk’s appetite fiercer and lustier”. Niland, at this point, also introduces us to the hawk’s real nature, to the way it would normally “sup …. on the hot running blood of the rabbit in the trap, squealing in eyeless terror”. It will eat creatures still alive, in other words. Anyhow, still “frenzied with hunger”, this hawk spies something in a farmyard – a kitten playing, “leaping and running and tumbling”, completely “unaware of danger”. Life is fun. After checking for human presence, the hawk swoops, and suddenly the kitten finds itself “airborne for the first time in its life”:
The kitten knew that it had no place here in the heart of space, and its terrified instincts told it that its only contact with solidity and safety was the thing that held it.
It latches on for dear life. This is a powerful story that keeps your attention from beginning to its – hmmm – somewhat surprising end, which I won’t spoil. Instead, I will briefly return to the title. Niland describes the hawk and kitten doing battle in the sky, writing that, with the hawk now descending, the kitten “rode down like some fantastic parachutist”. Soon after, when the kitten’s claws are digging into the hawk’s breast, he says that “the kitten was the pilot now”.
So, “pilot”? This could suggest that the kitten is in control, but is it? “Parachutist”, on the other hand, seems more subtle, implying a somewhat mutual relationship between the two. It is not the sort of freely chosen relationship that parachutists traditionally have, but this later title introduces an ambiguity into the narrative.
I found the story compelling. It is told third person limited, with our point of view, and sympathy, shifting between the two protagonists. Its subject matter might be nature, but its themes are more universal, encompassing predator and prey, the powerful and the powerless, experience and innocence, and of course survival, given at different points in the story both the hawk’s and the kitten’s survival is at stake. What to do?
Also, this might be a long bow, but Niland apparently said about his 1955 novel The Shiralee, that “it is a Biblical truth that all men have burdens. This is the simple story of a man with a burden, a swagman with his swag, or shiralee, which in this case happens to be a child. I have often thought that if all burdens were examined, they would be found to be like a swagman’s shiralee – not only a responsibility and a heavy load, but a shelter, a castle and sometimes a necessity.” “The pilot” was published two years earlier, but we could argue that for the hawk, the kitten, with its fierce frenetic claws, turns into a burden. The storyline and outcome are simpler, of course, but was Niland playing with this idea too in his story?
Whatever, “The pilot” or “The parachutist” beautifully exemplifies Niland’s ability to capture and hold his reader’s attention with a strong narrative and expressive writing. I hope to share more of the stories in future.
“The parachutist” in Short stories collection
(Read by Dennis Olsen)
ABC Audio, 2007
“The parachutist” in The Penguin Best Stories of D’Arcy Niland
Penguin Books, 1987
“The parachutist” The Oxford book of animal stories
London, Oxford University Press, 2002 (orig. pub. 1994)
“The pilot” in The Mail (Adelaide), 28 March 1953