The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

Written in intensely vivid prose and brimming with insight, The Illness Lesson is a powerful exploration of women’s bodies, women’s minds and the time-honoured tradition of doubting both. Read an extract from Clare Beams' new novel here. 



The first of the birds Caroline mistook for her own mind’s work.

The first of the birds Caroline mistook for her own mind’s work. When the streak of red crossed the kitchen windowpane, fast, disastrous-bright, she thought it was some bloody piece come loose inside herself.

Then her father appeared from the study and held the doorframe, leaning in. “Caroline! Did you see?”

They found it in the yard, real after all: high in their birch tree, pecking judiciously at the bark. The size of a dove, the shape of a crow, and a brazen crimson tip to tail feathers, the shade a cardinal might bloom to if dipped in wine. It had a crestless head, all sharp planes. As the Hoods watched, it took a choosy bird-step forward, then craned neck over back to root around in its wing.

“No question at all,” Samuel Hood said. His hand on Caroline’s arm felt slight. This shock had dislodged his usual serenity, and in his face she saw old age, the way his features would fold in on themselves. To brace them both she gripped his fingers. “Trilling hearts. Who’d have believed?”

A trilling heart,” Caroline said.

“What can this mean?” her father asked.

She had just one hazy red-tinged memory of the trilling hearts’ only prior appearance in Ashwell, twenty-five years earlier. Standing barefoot in the grass of the front garden, four years old and afraid to go down the path because of the bird that stood guard there, chopping up a worm with its brutal beak. Snip, snipsnip, worm bits on the gravel. On the steps behind her, sewing in the sun, her mother.

“What can this mean?” her father asked.

“That there’s a red bird in our tree.”

Samuel put a hand to his shirtfront. When he was a boy, his appendix had almost burst before the surgeon managed to remove it, and in moments of great excitement a heat-and-pain phantom seemed to revisit him. Sometimes Caroline found him with his fingers pressed there while he wrote and knew he was imagining readers, roomfuls of them, schools of hands turning reams of his pages.

“There is some significance,” he said.

The immensities of God’s creation often whittled themselves down to make a message for her father. But this—in this wouldn’t anyone read meaning? The red flash, the answering thrum.

“You know it was your mother who named them,” Samuel said, as if speaking about a person who’d stepped into another room.

Caroline tried again to turn her four- year-old head, to leave off staring at the bird and catch sight of her mother’s face.

“You never told me,” she said.

She said they put her in mind of hearts, scooped right out of chests. Disembodied, trilling hearts...

“I must have. Well. When we first saw them—a group of us out walking in the afternoon, just happening upon them in the fields, you can’t imagine—she said they put her in mind of hearts, scooped right out of chests. Disembodied, trilling hearts, she said.”

The bird’s shape was wrong for this description, but its feel was right. The trilling heart looked like something safer left hidden.

“Do you think David will be here in time to see?” Samuel said. As always, David’s name sounded louder than the rest of the words. “And I must tell Hawkins. I’ll write him today. Hawkins will know if there’ve been others spotted. He’s told me nothing grows or flies or runs in Massachusetts without his permission.”

Caroline hadn’t seen George Hawkins, or any of the Birch Hill men, in years, but she could picture the set of his mouth in delivering this not quite jest. He was a physician, only an amateur naturalist, but the sort of man who never considered himself an amateur at anything. They all were.

The bird raised its head again. Its black eye had the sightless sheen of a drop of oil. It tossed some bit of bark or insect back and swallowed it down, muscular throat squeezing.

“I ought to send a drawing with the letter. Caroline, would you? You have a fine hand.”

She breathed in on the swell of pride that came when her father praised her and stared at the bird, to memorize it, so that in the drawing itself she might earn that praise again. She noted the shape of the head; the shining, sharp-looking lines of the wings; the beak like a long, cruel tooth; the sweep of the tail feathers; that red, improbable shade.

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