Fragments of language and story extracted from the body
–by Temim Fruchter
What Kept Us Awake
“The use of fingernails for the purposes of divination is a longstanding Jewish practice – one uses the light of the Havdalah candle (used for a ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath) to gaze into one’s own nails. Young girls do so in hopes of seeing the man they will marry, but earlier authorities held that all kinds of omens, for good or for ill, could be detected in the reflection. Conversely, there is a belief that cutting one’s nails can adversely affect memory unless a specific order of trimming is followed: starting with the left hand, begin with finger four (ring) and end with one (thumb), and avoiding doing any two in sequence; right hand two to five. Fingers can be used in magical formula, and, most dangerously, in witchcraft. The careful disposal of trimmings is therefore imperative.”
– Geoffrey W. Dennis, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism
Nobody could quite disagree that, when you thought about it, fingernails were upsetting. Strange little interruptions, dirtcatchers, fossils, afterthoughts. But we were the only ones we knew who were actually afraid. We trimmed our nails in corners and over careful containers. Our fingernails, we’d heard, could cause harm. Could curse unborn babies. Could annoy the dead. We whispered prayers in threes, mostly that we hadn’t done anything incorrectly, that we hadn’t dropped any on the floor.
What kept us awake at night: death, eternity, our fingernails.
I always said that my hands were little boys’ hands. We were at the bar in some phase of early lust when I told you this, splayed out my fingers so you could see them all, crooked and crude. This embarrassed you somehow. My nails, undignified, the approximate size and shape of Smarties. My fingers thick and small and my hands urgent, always tapping or being tapped. I didn’t understand why you were embarrassed. They weren’t your hands.
For a short while, our romance was in the ritual. We would hold the candle together and look not at each other but into the fire, singing. The part I loved was the fingernails. You lift your fingernails to the fire, I’d say. Not your fingers, but your fingernails. You try to see something you’ve never seen. You are looking at the smallest convergence of matter. It isn’t true, of course, but it feels like it is, so it’s the story I tell you. Did you ever even think about it, I’d say, loving how wide your eyes got in the shine. Your fingernails?
I was always curious about an untouched nailbed. This is hard for me to admit because of what it reveals about me. But what did these people do with their hands? How were they to be trusted? Those hands with their pronounced and upstanding nails – almonds, oblong moons, milk, stationery.
Did anyone notice how I tried to disguise stubbiness with rings, stacked like gems? How I pretended abundance and painted my nails distracting colors – colors meant for candy or small pills? The thick rings made my fingers and their nails feel substantial. Would they leave a mark? And how deep? I often thought about a respectable nail dug properly into a fat rose petal, the impression sudden and just as sharp as the object that left it.
Biblical fact: Adam and Eve were, apparently, covered entirely in fingernail. Some questions about this: Was it like armor? What sound did their bodies make when they touched? What did they feel and what did they not? What was possible given that surface? Were they porous? Superstitious? Cursed? Did they wonder whether things could be different, could go deeper than right against? Did they miss what they were missing?
What kept us awake at night: beginnings, endings, our fingernails.
What we aren’t talking about is how we pretend we know what it means to be grown. You douse out the fire by dipping it in the puddle of wine on the plate. We watch the smoke and our nails disappear back into us then, no longer the all of us, just the edges.
In this light, everything gets regular.
Your shoulder touches mine as we talk about what’s for dinner and where we’re going after, stringing words together like we know exactly what they mean. My grown hand on my grown table. At night in the dark when we’re home again and telling stories, you tell me you’ve learned that lobsters are immortal, and I find myself feeling the rounds of my fingernails with my fingertips.
Yes, this relic. Yes I am mostly soft and afraid of the dark. Yes, yes, immortal.
Time forgets. It’s not just an expression. Things grow unkempt. Uncombed. Uncut. Things grow wild, longer, sharper, more terrible and beautiful in the shadows. We are jagged. Time forgets and remembers us. Sometimes we look into each other and sometimes just into the flame. Sometimes our armor and sometimes our skin and sometimes just the places between our bumpy fingers. We are all just so hungry for one another.
What kept us awake at night: never, always, our fingernails.
You told me not to be so superstitious, and so I tried. On one particular night, I cut my nails carelessly, letting them fall. I cut them shorter and shorter, as though to be fully rid of the evidence.
I’m not a fighter but I like to be able to scratch when I need to.
I am not sure I’ll leave a mark, or what shape it will be if I do.
In the end, I was up all night. I thought of curses and babies and the dead, and I prayed in threes, like always. I felt myself trimmed and unkempt. I felt myself young and incredibly old. I felt myself terrified and immortal. I felt your skin next to mine, warm, no armor, or maybe only just a little.
Temim Fruchter lives and loves in Washington, D.C., where she just landed very recently from Brooklyn. She writes mostly fiction and lyric prose, and has an overactive imagination.