The Nail Miser

By Audrey Park
April 27, 2024

That rat – that infiltrator – is here to take over my life. And if I can’t catch that rat, then the only fate I have is to lose it all.

A long time ago, my mom told me a story about a careless man who cut his fingernails and toenails by a river. Out of all of the stories she told me — out of all of her stories about tigers and monsters and ghosts — this one scared me the most.

It went like this: a long, long time ago, there was a man cutting his fingernails and toenails in the morning. He was in a rush, so he let his nails fall into a river and float downstream into the woods. A rat drinking water on the riverbank fished them off the surface. It ate the nails — all ten of them — and it became him.

The man went about his day, then went home for supper. But when he tried to enter his home, a stranger suddenly blocked his entrance. A stranger was eating his food, wearing his clothes, and grimacing with his face. His mother and father stood behind the stranger, gasping in fear and astonishment at the sight of their son at the door.

It’s a spirit disguised in my form,”  the stranger accused. “Trying to trick us and take our rice, our money, our lives!

The man tried to reason and plead with his parents, but no one listened. Nothing was his anymore. Left without a choice, he fled into the dark woods, never to be seen again.

It’s a cautionary tale that parents tell their children to get them to properly dispose of nail clippings at home rather than scattering them on the ground. It worked on me. Out of all of the tales my mom told me, this one still scares me.

I have a nervous habit of biting on my fingernails, and it happens everywhere. I’m always anxious that the people around me can see my flaws bubbling up to the surface –  lazy, ugly, strange, and overwhelming. With every movement I make, my nails get bitten to the quick. My fingertips get covered in saliva and I carry slivers of nail in my palm like a toddler bare-fisting Cheerios.

Then, I find myself standing over a public trash can, contemplating. It would be reasonable to throw away my fingernails immediately. But I can never get myself to do it. There’s a childlike fright that pulls me away, jumping to imagination and possibilities at a dizzying speed.

Is there any reality in which a rat could physically transform into my doppelganger just by eating my fingernails? There could be. There probably isn't. That’s the thing: I can’t know for sure.

If safeguarding against the risk of a stranger taking over my life comes at the small price of holding onto my nails until I get home, then I’ll always return them home where I can –

– stare into my bathroom trash can. It’s filthy, a pungent blend of dirty hair, period pads, and unpleasantly wet tissues. The odor gets sharper as my heartbeat spikes.

There shouldn’t be anything missing from the trash can. Who would want anything from the filthy bathroom trash can? But something is missing: my nail clippings, my nail clippings I collected and was so careful to bring home every day. There used to be so many. They were all gone.

I heard, a long time ago, that rats could sense a decaying person. I heard that rats studied those people intimately while lying in wait, eating all of their secrets and depravities so that they could worm their way into warm homes. Respected, accomplished people are difficult to imitate. Usurping the useless, waste-of-spaces is much easier.

Clarity, rage, and fear hit me all at once. Of course I would be the target.

That rat – that infiltrator – is here to take over my life. That rat isn’t human, but it knows how to play one better than I do. It will be a better student, a better daughter, a better friend than I am.

And if I can’t catch that rat, then the only fate I have is to lose it all — die alone in the woods, just like that careless man.

I have to get better.

Once I know what the rat has done, there’s never a moment where my heartbeat isn’t running jack-rabbit swift. I get startled by innocuous pedestrians, my face turns green and nauseous. I gnaw on my nails until there’s nothing left to chew, and they pile up in the trash can in taels of silver.

Monday: I pay special attention to my clothes and makeup. When I do my makeup, it isn’t a matter of something so trite as self-empowerment. It’s all about looking the part of a comfortable, approachable woman – sweet smiles and polite words. This is what the rat wants to be. I can do it better.

I look deeply into my reflection while I’m stretching out my lashes with mascara. I see my deep brown, twitching eyes. The rat’s beady little eyes.

I bet that it really hurt turning into me. I bet the rat contorted and screeched as its bristling fur receded into its raw, pink skin; as its claws tore off to become smooth, five-fingered hands.

I see my pretty, curved figure in the mirror. My naked, hunched, grimy figure with a rat’s featureless, black eyes.

Tuesday: I make time to meet with my friends and my friends’ friends. Smiling sweetly, speaking politely. The conversation is rolling smoothly, punctuated by a comfortable amount of laughs and anecdotes.

But the sounds and the harsh overhead light grate on my nerves. I stop talking. I stop fidgeting. I stare into a far corner of the room, trying not to blink.

I hear a faint scratching and humming. I see whiskers and unnatural movements from beyond the wall. I’m being watched.

People are looking at me strangely, concerned. But there are no words forming on my heavy tongue. The conversation rolls on.

A good friend. Normal social interactions. This is what the rat wants to be. I have to do it better.

Everyone else laughs at a joke that I’m not in on.

Wednesday: I pace around the actions I make and the words I say. Was I likable enough? Was I pretty enough?

Once the rat gets into my house, it will start raiding my closet and fridge, then start invading my relationships. It’ll whisper poison into my loved ones’ ears, convince them that it deserves their love more than I do.

I have to try harder. I have to stop slipping up.

Thursday: I try, I really try – but failures start piling up. Unread texts pile up, rejections pile up. My friends tell me they’re too busy to see me, and I can’t bear to look at myself in the mirror. I can’t bear to look at anything – that damned rat is suffocating me.

It’s drawing closer, getting bolder with its moves.

Friday: If my body outside speaks and walks and looks perfectly identical to my body at home – if my body makes my identity to strangers, to friends, to my family – if my body at home is clothed and seated, and my body outside is naked and running – then who do I become? If my identity is built out of my merits with other people and my possessions, then what do I become?

I’m nothing. I’m replaceable.

Tonight, the rat gets in.

Saturday: We snarl at each other like animals. There’s no difference between us. I want to pound its face until it's unrecognizable from mine. I want to tear its beady, rat eyes out of my face.

It’s not fair. Nothing was mine, not even me. Nothing was ever mine.

The rat interlocks our fingers, and our palm lines are identical. It interlocks our legs that have moles in the exact same places. The body is interchangeable. All I needed was an upgrade. Replace me with a better me. The costs were clear – losing this game meant that everyone else would win.

It looms over me, smiling sweetly. It presses closer with its warm, familiar body. I’m hanging by a thread. I’m going to be the loser. Looking deeply into my human eyes, the rat speaks:

Does it really matter if such a useless creature goes to die in the woods? I don’t think it does. I don’t think anyone will be able to tell the difference if you disappeared. Let go of your body, let go of your days. Don’t deny this poor rat.

I run my fingers over the pulse on the rat’s neck, tenderly. The costs were clear, but I couldn’t pay them. The fingers turn into claws, puncturing jagged fingernails into the vein.

“You’re in my place,” I whisper back, and I fall back into myself.

Layout: Yousuf Khan
Photographer: Isabelle Milford
Videographer: Maddie Abdalla
Stylists: Yousuf Khan & Vi Cao
HMUA: Meryl Jiang & Juniper Luedke
Models: Noor Khan & Chase Smyth

Other Stories in RAW

© 2024 SPARK. All Rights Reserved.