On ye naegl

October 12th, 2020

I scour the polish off my nails and see what's underneath for the first time in a couple of weeks, though it feels like ages. In fact, I'm shocked, somehow, at what they look like under the even, opaque paint in which they've been so regularly covered. They're normal yet alien; their obvious anatomy and the form belying function are jarring somehow, like a persian cat seen just-washed, a fifth of its former glorious girth, or an actress staged always in the myriad trappings of Elizabethan costume suddenly naked. The pink nailplates are as shiftingly unhomogenous as August sunset, morphing with time and movement. Once escaped from the finger, the nails are white as chalk, infinitesimally banded, telling some story about the state of my health, or the woes of my mind. The instinct imposes itself: repaint them. But I decide to let them be, to take a break, to sit with the reality of their plain unornamented humanness awhile. And I drift to an examination of their tireless protection, and the shelter similar biological structures serve to other forms of life.

The keratin responsible for most of the nail's composition is by no means a resource exclusive to humanity. Along with chitin, which evolved earlier and so finds itself more readily employed among the insects and arthropods, keratin is one of the toughest biological materials in existence, and other genii of life have made ample use of its potential for resistance and defense. Most vertebrates, in fact, make use of some sort of keratinous compound, expressed variously as hair or fur, hooves, and the outermost layer of the skin. Then come the claws, the horns, the feathers, the stuff of which fight or flight is literally made. From turtle shells to fish scales, eagles' beaks to sheep's wool, what keeps the tips of my fingers and toes safe from the thousands of things I touch every day so serves the rest of the animal kingdom tirelessly, silently. Even spiders' silk, if somewhat further from the amalgamation of keratin in my nails, carries with it some measure of this precious stuff. Indisputably useful; capable of countless manifestations of shape, color, size; easily replaced --one can't help but suspect that keratin is a sort of plastic put together by the fates of the earth, which I suppose is fairly ironic when considering nylon wigs and acrylic nails.

The nail may be natural, but like the majority of things that may ever live, it's dead. At least, the nail plate itself. When keratin fills a cell, hardening it, readying it for utility, it swallows up all else: organelles, nucleus, all. The nail matrix, the source of cells, lives on, but what it produces is a sort of ghastly conveyor belt, wherein life uses death to shield itself from the same. As with any keratinized object, the human nail can tell a tale of the bearer's recent battle performance. Obvious problems --poor hygiene, blunt damage, are borne easily on those parts put forth in a fight. But the nails will tattle further. Vitamin deficiencies, genetic defects, lack of sleep, dehydration, overexercise, neurosis, even the innocent fact of age are laid out in the manuscripts of toe- and finger-tips, ready for the reading by anyone who can.

Honest and strong, ancient, morbid, my nails look a little less strange in their examined state. Still, I think I'll paint them purple.

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