BIRDS, AGAIN

ASHWELL, MASSACHUSETTS, 1871

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.

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.

“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.

  • The Illness Lesson

  • 'Feels like both a classical ghost story and like a modern (and very timely) scream of female outrage. A masterpiece' ELIZABETH GILBERT

    ‘Subtle, clever, suspenseful . . . builds to a shocking climax’ DIANE SETTERFIELD

    'Astoundingly original, this impressive debut belongs on the shelf with your Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler collections.' New York Times

    'You want to know how horrifying things happened while decent people looked on and did nothing? Read this novel' MARY BETH KEANE

    'A Sunday Times Book to Read in 2020: A classic ghost story for fans of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Deborah Levy, Jeffrey Eugenides' SUNDAY TIMES STYLE

    It is 1871. At the farm of Samuel Hood and his daughter, Caroline, a mysterious flock of red birds has descended. Samuel, whose fame as a philosopher is waning, takes the birds’ appearance as an omen that the time is ripe for his newest venture. He will start a school for young women, guiding their intellectual development as he has so carefully guided his daughter’s. Despite Caroline’s misgivings, Samuel’s vision – revolutionary, as always; noble, as always; full of holes, as always – takes shape.

    It’s not long before the students begin to manifest bizarre symptoms: rashes, seizures, verbal tics, night wanderings. In desperate, the school turns to the ministering of a sinister physician – just as Caroline’s body, too, begins its betrayal. As the girls’ condition worsens, Caroline must confront the all-male, all-knowing authorities of her world, the ones who insist the voices of the sufferers are unreliable.

    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.

  • Buy the book

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