Nails by Michael de Waal-Montgomery


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SUMMARY: Short story.

Chewing his fingers is all he would ever do. Chew, chew, chew. He tried to stop, many times. It's an addiction, he said, like smoking. Every time he thought about stopping he'd be drawn back into it with more hunger than ever, like a moth to a flame. But so what, I thought, big deal. He chews his fingers. There are more important things to worry about in this world. People are dying out there, people are starving. Meanwhile we're here telling him that he shouldn't be chewing his fingers. Get a life. That's what we all need to do. We all need to get a damn life.
He used to chew his nails as well, but eventually he managed to give that one up. From then on he would chew his fingers with more vigour than ever. I guess it was to make up for the fact that his nails had been figured out of the equation.
When I think of him back then, it's the little things I remember: his nervous laugh, his beady eyes, the way he smelt. That sour smell. It was the kind of stubborn stale smell that just refused to leave, as if it was embedded deep in his clothes, deep in his skin. A part of who he was.
The last time I saw him was at his aunt's funeral. I remember him standing there gnawing away at his fingers. I remember the shock when I saw the blood on his lips. I don't think he even knew what he was doing. It was a hard time for him.
When he was about seventeen he decided to leave it all behind. A two-star town, that's what he used to call this place. He never came back, though I always wondered what became of him, where he went, what kind of person he turned out to be. I guess I'll never know.

It's a cold winter day and I'm looking out the window at the falling snow. I know the spring will be here soon and all the snow will melt, as if it had never been there at all. That's the beauty of it all, don't you think? The potential for change. No, the absolute certainty of change. It's the only thing you can really be sure of. The only thing you can rely on when all else fails. Change is in the air. The times are changing. Life is all about change, all about growth. And when death finally comes for me I know I'll be ready. If life has taught me anything it's that you must always be ready for the unexpected, always keep one step ahead of your shadow, because if it catches you, that's game over. It's all for nothing then.
I sit in my rocking chair and, as the snow covers the garden in white, I can't help thinking about him. I look down at my own fingers and realise my nails are getting longer. I try to remember where I last saw my nail clippers, but my memory is a blank. Suddenly I'm afraid, terribly afraid. I imagine I'm on an island and there is absolutely nothing there. The silence pervades everything. Finally I am overwhelmed by it. It becomes unbearable.
I sit there on the shore and look out to sea, the waves gently lapping against my feet. From each of my toes there is a nail that grows out into the deep darkness of the ocean, like long lengths of seaweed that chain me to this place. The nails on my hands wrap round behind me and disappear into the dense jungle; vines that twist round everything they touch, suffocating.
I am stuck here, between these two worlds, slowly being stretched apart, day by day, year by year, until the ocean and the land strike a deal, and one of them finally claims me. Or maybe they will decide that I am of no use to them in the end, and spit me back into a universe where I belong. A universe where I can cut these nails away once and for all. A melancholy wind blows through me and I promise myself that if I ever get out of this place I will go and find him. Yes, maybe he can help. It will be a testing period ahead, but if he has the answers it will have all been worth it. He must have the answers. All I can do now is wait. I will ride out this storm. Just you wait and see. I will ride it out.