All Stories, General Fiction, Short Fiction

Or I Could Be by CK Bern

The manicurist left lye out among the pedicure chairs, struggling to maintain the salon to her standards, but the We’re Open sign was only half true and gone were the days her window said No Walk-Ins. After a customer burned skin off both feet, she kept things hygienic and let the overall harmony of the salon decay. One afternoon, the bamboo chimes stirred, announcing the arrival of three women. Breasts so large, the first woman was on the verge of tipping forward. A second woman lumbered under an oily mane. A third burbled, lips swollen and barely moving like two dowels in the teak plate of her face.

“Kennedy, you have got to lay off the needle,” the first woman said. “No one understands you until your face wears off.” She took in the scattered bottles, towels, and tools around the salon. “Wow, this place is…not chic.”

The second woman stared at the window. “That’s a bird, not a snake. I said Notorious Nails, Sloane.”

“It is a common mistake,” the manicurist said, “Let me give you directions.”

The women left, jostling like antsy mules. She sat at her station. Soon, she would have to hang a new sign, closing for good. She smoothed the lapels of her white smock. It displayed her name on a front pocket and a red-crowned crane on the back. Her wings were lifted, white and black feathers partially extended. Her grey neck curved downward as she studied the ground. One leg was bent. It was unclear if she were landing or about to take flight.


The salon phone rang. “Noble Nails, how may I help you?”

“I was hoping to make an appointment for today,” a woman said. “I know it’s short notice. Would you have time at four?”

The manicurist had not heard such a hopeful voice in months. “I have someone then. I’m sorry. We take walk-ins, though. Would you like to come now?”

The woman was silent a moment. “Ok, yes.”

The manicurist chose a playlist from a tablet on the wall. Sounds of streams and songbirds drifted down from speakers in the ceiling. The bamboo chimes stirred. Human or creature, the manicurist did not know what she was looking at. The woman was tall and fit. Tattoos covered her visible skin. She had short dark hair and two small horns protruding from her forehead. They were straight, laterally flat, and appeared to be molting.

“I just called,” the woman said. “Is now still a good time?” She wore a dark fur vest and close-fitting pants that turned into hooves. “They are just shoes,” she said, pointing. At the ends of her fingers were claws.

Just shoes. The manicurist lifted her gaze to the woman’s face and spoke slowly. “I’m not sure I…. Did you mean to call Notorious Nails?”

“No.” The woman glanced at the flying crane in the window. “Noble Nails. You were recommended.”

The manicurist nodded and straightened her white smock. “What is it you would like to have done?”

The woman smiled, showing clean white teeth with canines filed to points. “Manicure and pedicure, please.”


She led the woman to a chair and turned on the tap. She wheeled over a utility cart and a stool. There was a ripping of fastener straps as the woman removed the hooves. The manicurist leaned forward and rolled her pants up to her knees.

“This is my first pedicure,” the woman said, submerging her feet in the swirling water.

Her exposed skin was completely tattooed, as well. Even the toes. Her bare nails were like scattered pearls in the water. She looked keenly around the salon. The manicurist glanced at the magazines in the adjacent chair but doubted this woman would find them interesting. It was a jarring thought, that they might have something in common.

“What has inspired you to try it?”

“I grew up here,” the woman said. “I left when I was young. Really, I ran away. But I’m back for a few days.” She moved her feet in the water. “I’m doing research.”

The manicurist patted the padded edge of the tub. The woman offered her right foot. The manicurist had seen toenails in worse shape, but her sole and heel would need tending. They were calloused and dry, marring the lines and colors of the tattoos. She bent to the familiar task of trimming and shaping nails.

“Is it usually this quiet?” the woman asked.

“There is a new place attracting attention. Going there would probably be better research.”

“How so?”

“Their services are…daring. Snake massages. Facials with animal waste. Placenta rubs. There is no proven benefit to the body, but people seem to want the show.”

“I bet you have regulars who don’t care about all that.”

“Regulars,” the manicurist said. “A few.”

“Tell me about them.”

The manicurist looked up. “My regulars?”

“Yes. Who comes here instead of going there?”

The manicurist switched to the left foot and resumed trimming and shaping. “Some want kempt nails that don’t interfere with their jobs. Runners like to keep ingrown nails at bay. Some come every few weeks for basic waxing.” She gave it more thought. “They want a service that is what it is. They don’t need it to be something else. Locals. Many come alone. I think some don’t come by choice. They’ve had a falling out. Their friends go to the other salon, but they still come here. Over the years, their friends have changed. Physically.”

“Not like me.”

The manicurist shook her head.

“So, what…face lifts and such?”

“Areas of their bodies have become gigantic or small,” she said. “Blank or overabundant. They don’t look harmonious or whole.”

“Whole,” the woman said.

“All the time they joke about their…parts.”

“Parts,” the woman said.

“As if they don’t see each other as adding up. Just something to belittle.”

“Sounds like your regulars are better off here. How…do they seem?”

The manicurist moved back to the right foot and began scraping callouses. “Worried, sad. I wanted to lessen that. At least, I tried to while they were here.”

She manoeuvred the foot, raising it up and tilting it with a firm grip. She knew when to deepen or relax pressure, how to cradle a heel or arch and guide movement with her thumb.

“That’s kind of you.” The woman blinked back tears.

“Did I hurt you?”

The woman wiped her eyes. “No.” She gazed around the salon. “I’m just glad I came.”


The manicurist massaged the woman’s legs with lavender-scented oil and salt. When her limbs aligned, so did the tattoos. Shapes and colors connecting from one leg to the other.

“It’s one piece,” the woman said. “A painting I saw in New York. I had to lie down on a giant roll of paper, so my friend could draw outlines of my body. He filled them in with the painting, so it would join up on my skin.”

“What is it?”

“It’s untitled, but it was part of a series the artist did on decay and transformation.” She paused. “I would miss it.”

The manicurist guided the woman’s feet down into the tub and rinsed her legs. She wiped them clean with warm towels. “Would you remove it?”

“No, but there could be a future where I no longer see all of it.” She glanced at the hooves. “This could be the first and last pedicure I get.”

The manicurist felt an odd pang of loss. “No polish then?”

“I don’t think so,” the woman said.


They sat on either side of the table at her station. The manicurist arranged tools on a ceramic tray. Eventually, she took the woman’s hands in her own.

“These don’t come off,” the woman said. “Or grow.”

The claws were implanted at the third knuckle of each finger. Around each base was well-formed scar tissue. They were translucent, narrower than the nails beneath, curving over and beyond them to a practical length. They seemed to be trying for harmony with the hand. Not for show. Meant to be put to use.

There was enough access to the nails to do basic maintenance, certainly nothing more than the woman could do on her own. Neither the claw nor the nail truly needed her.

The woman flexed her fingers. “They are helpful at work.”

The manicurist ran her thumb over a claw. It was smoother and sturdier than nail. Gently pressing the pointed end did not put her skin at immediate risk. She picked up a pair of clippers.

“What do you do?”

“I work in warehouses all day. I love it. The constant motion. Everything in transit. Nothing is trapped or fixed. Even the stuff that sits around for a while eventually moves on.” The woman laughed. “I do a lot of grabbing and ripping.”

The snap of the clippers was quick and sharp. “And your employer did not mind?”

“Oh, no. They helped fund the procedure.”

The manicurist picked up a file. “What if you lost that job…had to find something new?”

The woman shrugged. “I’d find another that needed me to do a lot of ripping.” She gave it more thought. “Or shredding. Or digging. Or kneading. I bet that other salon would hire me to do some silly cat massage.” Her laugh became a heavy sigh. “Becoming a masseuse. That would be fitting.”

“Is it that easy?”

The woman was quiet a moment. “It may not be so here, but I’ve done it elsewhere. Have you thought about what’s next?”

The file sawed back and forth.

“There are people who get stuck,” the woman said, “and don’t look forward. They would never hire me. There are other people who want to get things done. They don’t care that I’ve implanted horns in my head. They wouldn’t care that you owned a salon that failed.”

The manicurist set down the file. “I’ve done what I can for your nails. Let me tell you what you owe.”


She used her phone to tally the bill. The woman fidgeted. It was hard to read her features through the tattoos.

“I was wondering…I’ll pay whatever…could you help with my horns?”

The manicurist gazed at the parallel juts above her eyes. In places, a paler core was exposed where the darker coating was missing. “What’s happening?”

“They’re shedding,” the woman said. “Just the sheath, which is rare in nature. Not quite a horn and not quite an antler, yet in a pronghorn they came to be.” She touched one. “The horn is silicone like my claws, but the sheath is closer to keratin. I’m helping someone test it out. We’re seeing how it breaks down naturally over time.”

Naturally. The manicurist touched the horn, feeling smooth “bone” and rough, flaking sheath. She went into the back, warmed a small bowl of water, and soaked a pumice stone in it. She draped a towel around the woman’s shoulders and stood beside her. She rubbed the stone in small circles, encouraging the sheath to slough off.

“Do these…help in the warehouses?”

“They help during fights,” the woman smiled, “which can happen on the job.”

The manicurist aimed to be as gentle as the trickling water and birdsong drifting down from above. The horn was not real bone, but it was part of her body. She would feel vibrations of an unkind force acting on it. Was she asking too much, putting her body to overuse? What of the women who had shown up earlier? Were they wasting their bodies on changes for show? Was the body something to be grounded in or something to transcend? The woman tilted her horns into the scrubbing. Had they ever been touched like this?

“I’m sorry I said you failed,” the woman said. “I’m sure you gave your regulars something no one else could.” She closed her eyes. “You know…this could become a new service. The market is small, but it will grow.”

Caring for horns. What about caring for tails, feathers, scales, shells? Running a salon like that would require learning new skills and using new tools. Would she need to provide perches and posts and soft beds where these customers could wait, heat and mist for them while she worked? A different interior for the salon. Different treats and distractions offered. It was dizzying to imagine.

“The hoof is not rigid,” the woman said. “It is elastic and flexible. It aids in overall blood flow. It changes shape when it bears weight.” Her voice held wonder. “I move around all day. Climbing, pulling, carrying, roaming over hard and padded and damp surfaces. I am literally a draught animal.” Her sloughing sheath fell like dark snow. “Or I could be.”


The manicurist stared at the dark flakes on the floor. Something designed and created. Something tested and shed. The bamboo chimes stirred, a resonant and hollow sound.

“Good lord, what was she doing here?”

The manicurist blinked. Mara, her four o’clock, had arrived. “Who?”

“Caroline Carr’s daughter. You remember Caroline.” Discomfort pinched her eyes and mouth. “She used to come in at four.”

A regular for years, Caroline Carr had not been in for weeks. A quiet woman who wanted her nails short and clean, so they did not interfere with her job. She had seemed deeply preoccupied by some concern or longing that never went away.

“The masseuse?”

Mara sighed. “Her funeral was yesterday.” She set her boxy purse down where the woman had recently sat. “Showing up after all these years. It’s disgraceful. The pain she caused her mother.” She gazed around the salon, eyes wide and mouth curled in distaste. “What was she doing here?”

The manicurist straightened her white smock, then slowly removed it. She went to the front door of her salon and hung the new sign, Thank you and Goodbye.


CK Bern

Image by Irenna86 from Pixabay

3 thoughts on “Or I Could Be by CK Bern”

  1. Hi CK,
    There is so much in this about reasoning, image and all forms of shallowness.
    To me, the MC had enough when someone passed comment on the body modification woman and how she had caused her mother distress.
    I think the whole point about the MC was that she had started out to make folks feel better about themself, but all the new fangled treatments had become so false. When she spoke to the modification woman, she realised that she was an individual, just like all of those she used to help. But she realised that individuality is scorned for more acceptable generic traits and fashionable image.
    For such a simple story there are so many layers within.
    This is an excellent piece of social commentary in amongst a very recognisable premise.


  2. Recalls to mind an old Twilight Zone episode in which you had to “choose” what type of acceptable beauty you are to become at a certain age. Even more troublesome, your individuality goes away after you chose (or are forced to do so). Here the concept is much finer drawn. More proof you cannot effectively outlaw human nature.


  3. Compelling and absorbing read. What is on the surface vs. what is within, which includes the attitude. You can change what is on the surface, but as IreneAllison12 said, “you cannot effectively outlaw human nature.” I like the descriptions of the different women, and the bit about the artist who did the series on decay and transformation.


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