Mouths are for eating
I’d been telling her for decades to get rid of the nails. They were so long now that they coiled into themselves like snakes, dense as tree roots. She’d wrapped them up with layers and layers of cloth so they wouldn’t break. People always overestimate how much they need to do to look a certain way, the therapist told me. We’d thought it was just a quirk then. Harmless.
That was before she started waking up moaning, bending over as if she was cradling something precious in her arms. Her nails rustled softly, like a dreaming infant. It hurts, it hurts, she cried. I was no longer sleeping with her then. She’d turned to me one day and said, there’s no space for you here. The nails had snaked over the entire king-size bed. So I moved. It was a small shift, one of many. I thought it’d spare me her sobbing, but her cries were so loud that I could hear her from the kitchen floor. If I tried to touch her, she’d recoil, teeth bared. I learnt to stay away from her. Remove myself from her life. Listen to the whimpering as pure sound, steady and constant. Musical, even, if you leant into it.
It wasn’t always like this. At first, I’d tried reasoning. They’re only nails, I said. And they’re hurting you. Cut them. Like everything I ever wanted, she replied, snarling at me. I’d tried different tactics too, like threatening to leave her. She couldn’t move her hands anymore, so if I left, she’d starve to death. At this, I’ll keep my nails was all she’d say. I gave up soon after. I fed her every day and tucked her in every night. If she wanted to be moved around- which was rare- I helped her into the wheelchair. I arranged the twin giant masses of nail into the containers attached to the side. I pushed her to the balcony. She’d gaze at the view of a brick wall, which was covered in crow shit and spit. We never earned enough for a better apartment because of her condition. Every few seconds, she’d glance at the containers, as if to make sure her nails were still there. Even at night, she set alarms for every half-hour to tend to them. I sat with her, my body stiff and still so as to not intrude.
Sometimes she’d whisper to the nails. Her voice was low, rough, unaccustomed to speech. I never knew what she said. It sounded sweet and intimate. Things are always less personal than they seem, the therapist told me. When she dozed off, I strolled her back into her room. The floor was covered with dust, dead skin and pieces of nail that’d broken off. The soles of my feet were thick with scars from stepping on them. In death, her fingers were swollen blue. Twisted into clumps of unshaped flesh that gave way to nail as thick as bone. I touched her body for the first time in decades. She was stiff. As still and hard as I’d been in her presence. In her absence, I softened. Her hands were splayed out beside her on the bed, nails hissing out, alive where she was not. I lowered myself down. Keratin splintered under my weight, the sharp edges digging into my skin, drawing blood.
Seven days I slept there, breathing in our festering scent, tracing her nails with my tongue. Her body is long gone now. Decayed into soil and bone. But I still keep the nails with me. Somedays I consider having them attached to my own nails, which have grown almost as long as hers. This is how I would like to go, I tell my new wife. I want her nails buried in me. She says nothing, only presses the carton of milk to my lips. It spills onto my beard, a single drop dripping onto my cloth-wrapped claw. When she tries to clean it, I growl. She learns to stay away. My upper body is in constant pain and I can no longer feel my legs. I no longer hear myself whimpering. They’re hurting you, she says, sobbing. I can’t do this anymore. It’s either me or the nails. I’ll keep the nails, I say.
YOUNGSEO LEE is an eighteen year old from Seoul and Arizona. A 2020 National YoungArts Finalist in Creative Nonfiction and cat lady with no cats of her own, she has work that has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, Emory Lullwater Review, Bitterfruit Review, and more.