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The Quick

The Quick

Martha Webber

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When they run, their spines stretch and their legs release into full extension: a bow snapping to send an arrow. For a moment they glide above ground, a straight line from front paw to back, from quick to quick. Sometime later, the chase for the two brothers over, the Spaniel paws my lap and rests his leg across my body. He flexes his footpad to clutch my skin and his nails scratch me lightly beneath the dense white fur.

Most humans don’t think of the quick in a dog’s nail until they open it by accident—a tiny but sensitive thread of blood that reaches near to the end of their nail. It can release a surprising amount of blood for such a small guillotining: four tiny executions for each paw, sixteen cuts with each grooming. What is this thing, the quick? Is it the blood and bundle of nerve endings or merely their passageway? Is it substance or traveling space?

“Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you: Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead.” (1 Peter 4:3-5)

Now almost archaic in meaning, “the quick” denotes “the living” and the word was often used figuratively to evoke “the core of a person’s being.” Sometime later the word was used in phrases that referenced acute mental pain or irritation—perhaps around the time Burton anatomized melancholy in seventeenth century Britain (arguably one of the earliest known English “self-help” periods). Sting to the quick. Gall to the quick. Cut to the quick. Now a brusque demand: get to the point.

The quick: both extremity and core, the farthest reach of the smallest circulation and the most central of life forces. When a miner hits the quick, he unearths a vein of ore so rich and sparkling, a momentary surge when he may forget the dust that grits between his teeth and the fatigue that calluses his body. When a mother first feels the fetus move inside of her we call it “the quickening” and we are startled by this sign, a phenomenon both natural but barely quotidian. The concept drives artists, including punk band The Vandals, whose 1996 album, The Quickening, includes the song “Canine Euthanasia”—Warren Fitzgerald’s exploration of ending a beloved pet dog’s life after its mobility and sentience are greatly diminished in age. Imagining the dog in heaven, the lead singer cries out, “I bet your legs will work again / you can run around like years before / and you’ll be surrounded by your friends.”

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At once the first signs of life, its centrality, and its very limit. Over hundreds of years of use, the quick recalls the first classification: the distinction between animate and inanimate, living and dead, subject and object. The first empiricists likely noted that life is movement, even on the smallest scale, and even if that life remains rooted to the ground. To trespass on the sentimental, the quick reminds us that all life is critical. 

Layers of translucent keratin cover both the Spaniel’s quick and my own—a part rendered near lifeless with its label of hyponychium on an anatomical diagram—and I see paw and hand next to each other, imagining the microscopic vessels carrying blood that wakens our nerves and pinks our skin.

All rights reserved to Martha Webber.

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