e p o n y c h i u m /
/ / c u t i c l e 

Look at your fingers. The cuticles are 

the small crescent barrier that protects the nail as it grows in. It is a small, thin, fragile layer of skin. 


For beauty, my mom would get those 

clacky and commanding fake nails. To achieve this, nail techs would crush the cuticle back into the base where the nail plate meets the skin, called the proximal fold, using a wedge. Scraping against the surface of the lunula and slicing off the excess dead skin to create a clean slate for acrylics. 

Rarely, this can make you bleed. My 

mother would sometimes flinch imperceptibly as the dremel sanded away at the nail plate, launching nearly invisible particulates into the air, her mouth, her lungs. You could see the super fine dust of it under the bright lamplight, like flecks of ash drifting in plumes of smoke above the rage of fire. 


The first time my mom slapped my fingers 

away from my mouth, I staggered a few steps from her. The place where she had slapped hadn’t hurt at all, it was just a gentle strike— the pain shot from the side of my finger. A drop of blood sizzled in the sting of a torn hangnail, right where I’d been chewing. I hadn’t noticed my teeth there. 


The lateral nail fold is the tender portion of 

skin on either side of the nail bed. It is where ingrown nails stab into, where sidewall hangnails peel from. It holds the nail and protects it as it grows along the nail bed. A built-in defense for one of your body’s natural weapons: the fingernails. 


My fingernails were always jagged, like 

tilled, dry earth. Mom blamed my friend at gymnastics practice for the habit. 

There is a photograph of me and that 

girl, 9 years old, trapped in our leotards, holding acrylic participation medals. Look closely and you’ll see our nails bitten down to nubs. Chalk planted in the tilled edge of our nails and the cracks of our callouses. Our hands were toil. 

Another picture of us: side to side, right 

thumb between our teeth, left hand clenched tightly to our chests, faces as pale as the white half-moon of the lunula. 


The portion of nail that my mom added on artificially that extends 

from the fingertip in a crisp arch, the part that clacks impatience on a restaurant table or makes demands on an office desk; that is called the free edge. 

My mom paid over sixty dollars for a free 

edge, and then thirty dollars every few weeks to maintain them. 


When I first started chewing my nails, I was 

just a small thing. My mom eventually had enough of slapping my hands away herself, so she bought fingernail polish meant to train me out of the habit. The taste was bitter like dandelion stems brewed in gasoline. It flavored every food I ate, coated my whole tongue and pricked my sinuses. 

It reeked like the nail salon my mother 

would drag me to, where I’d watch her get her stained and yellowed nails redone with a new set of acrylics. She would tell me to look at them, to compare them to the painful nubs I had for nails. 

It did not stop me from biting away my free 



The hyponychium is that soft tissue visible 

just under your nail, where your free edge lifts off of the nail bed. That soft, slight protrusion of tissue is much like the cuticle in that it protects the 

vulnerable nail bed from bacteria. It is a hidden safeguard. 

Nail biters are quite familiar with their 

hyponychium, though they don’t know its name, only its pain. It is a hard limit. It is a challenge. 


Whereas the rancid fingernail polish was an 

inconvenience, the hyponychium limited how far I could truly chew my fingernails. The ache of trying to bite past the hyponychium was dull but constant, sometimes matching with the pounding of my heart during a test where I had not even realized I was biting away. 

When you bite your fingernails back enough, 

you can clearly see and feel the hyponychium. 

I do not believe my mom ever saw her 

hyponychium through the thick polish. She would have to search on herself for the things that were clear as day on me. 


Sidewall hangnails are common in nail biters, 

the constant contact with saliva renders the skin fragile and prone to them. Many biters cannibalize those too, peeling back layers of themselves as they introspect. 

Then, though, comes the spiral. More 

splits in the skin crack open because of the contact with saliva, so there’s more to bite until your fingers are aching and hand sanitizer stings and soap stings and salt stings and so they move on to the last portion of the nail they can attack. 


The cuticle was the last available surface of my 

fingernail, so my fixation migrated there. First picking, then trying to fit my teeth over it, like the clippers that nail techs use, copying what I’d seen them do on my mother’s fingernails: wedging back the fragile layer of cuticle and gnawing off all that I could scrape away. 

This was where my mother drew the line. She demanded I quit the habit, and threatened to tape my 

fingernails with duct tape every night. 

She said this with clenched fists on one hand, 

her right index finger pointing at me, accusing me with her bright red nail polish. That finger, just a few inches from my face, had no visible cuticle because she had paid someone to scrape, rip, clip it away when she’d gotten her nails done just the day before. 


I’m biting my nails between stanzas. 


What most people call the “cuticle” is dead 

skin moving along with the nail. A small protective barrier that my mother and I both tore away. 

The eponychium is the living portion of the 

cuticle, producing that dead tissue that we call the “true cuticle”. 


If either my mother or I were to leave our 

fingers alone, the eponychium would grow back the dead tissue on our fingers and would protect us once more. If my mother stopped getting her nails done, her fingernails would stop thinning, her nail plate would not be stained and yellowed. Her wallet would not be hurting. 

But my clear nails, so thin you could see the 

hyponychium from the top just as clearly as the eponychium, the aching sidewall hangnails, and the carved-out cuticle were the problem. She pointed her blood-red nail at me. 

The suffix 

-nychium in eponychium means little claw. 


My mother pointed her little claw at me. And, 

as I grew older, my face was not so pale, my fear 

not so great. I pointed my bitten, weak little claws back at her. 

All the same, they were still claws. 


We both had our little claws, though they 

did not look the same. We had little claws and nail plates, proximal and lateral nail folds, sidewall hangnails, and hyponychium, though she may have never seen it. No true cuticle, but we both had eponychium, a system with which to grow the cuticle back, if ever we were to change our ways. 


When she grabbed my hands, or hugged me so 

tight that her hands wrapped around my frame, I’d look at her nails, and see my nails. And surely she saw the same in me. 


She died with acrylics on. 

Chey Chesser is a soon-to-be Western Washington University graduate with a major in creative writing and a minor in Japanese language. Their hobbies include crochet, picking up litter, and guiltily re-reading the first three published versions of the first Twilight novel. This is their first publication.