The orange berry bush is where I go when I want to be secret. It is by the front window of our house. Sometimes I see my mother peering through the glass. I pretend I’m looking at the leaves and the berries and then after a minute I crouch down. The bush is bigger than I am. I can’t be seen.
When I crouch by the orange berry bush I bite my fingernail. The littlest one. On my right hand. If it is my right hand. It may be my left hand. I sometimes forget which hand is which. So on one of my hands, either left or right, there isn’t any nail now. Well, there is nail over the finger till you get to the edge. But then there’s nothing. My other nails are rounded and longer than the finger but now the one on the end (left or right) finishes in a sharp straight line. Then I bite the other nail to match. Now it doesn’t matter if I don’t know which is left or right. The two little fingers look the same.
I have the nail ends in my mouth and I chew them round and round. What do they taste like? I don’t think they taste of anything. But the feel of them against my teeth when I bite them is really nice. The nails are dry and smooth. Sharp but not hurty. And then I try something else: The skin at the corner of both the little fingers.
What you have to do is press a tooth down against what’s left of each of the nails. Then you twist with the tooth a bit and bite the skin off. When it is in your mouth you can test it with your teeth. The bitten off nails and the skin do not feel the same. The nails are crisp. The skin is chewy.
It is best to bite skin from the thumb though. The thumb is bigger than the little finger so you can get more of it. I tear a strip down and bite it off. If you do too much the finger bleeds and hurts. I don’t like that so I try to bite just the right amount. I like chewing the nail and the flesh at the same time. The two textures, which are different, seem to go together well. Nail biting is fun but my mother doesn’t like to know I do it. She thinks it is not a nice thing to be doing. It makes your fingers look ugly, she says. She buys something to paint on my fingernails which tastes horrible and acidy. But I bite anyway, and don’t care about the taste. The taste doesn’t matter to me. The texture of nail and skin is what I enjoy.
My mother likes the word cuticle. She says the skin at the top of my nails is called that and if you push the cuticles up half moons will be revealed. And she does just this with a silver stick from her manicure set, to show me. It is true what she says. They are white like new moons in the sky at night.
Cuticles are quite cute so it’s not a bad word for them, unlike the word nail for the nails on my fingers. Because these nails are nothing like the metal nails which people use to join wood together or to mend the soles of shoes with. These nails would not be fun to bite. They are not chewable. So it’s funny the same word is used. That’s what I think.
‘You shouldn’t be biting your cuticles,’ my mother tells me, clicking her tongue. ‘Or your nails either. It’s unsightly,’ she says. ‘And it’s a shame. You’ve got such pretty hands. So why do you do it?’
I can’t explain to her that I just love the feeling of tearing off the strips of skin and of snipping off bits of nail with my teeth.
Though I hide behind the orange berry bush my mother most likely still knows what’s going on. But it doesn’t wind her up because she can’t see me in action. Though she sometimes shouts anyway, because the thought of what I am doing makes her angry. And when she shouts I shout as well because when this happens I feel angry too.
This was the first of many things my mother and I fought about. Tooth and nail.
Jay Merill is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing, is runner up in the 2018 International Alpine Fellowship Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee, is the recipient of an Award from Arts Council England and the winner of the Salt short story Prize. She is the author of two short story collections (both Salt): God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies. Jay is currently working on a third short story collection. She is published in 3: AM Magazine, Bare Fiction Magazine, Berfrois, The Bohemyth, Gravel, The Literateur, Lunch Ticket,The Manchester Review, matchbook, Minor Literature[s], MIR Online, Occulum, The Quietus, Storgy and Unthology 10. Image: Fighting Forms, Franz Marc, 1914