Our Korean exchange student leaned over the kitchen sink in a stupor. The night before we had laughed ourselves silly at Camilla’s tale of her Saudi classmate who always said “chicken” when he meant “kitchen.” But none of us was laughing this morning. And none of us was ready to meet the domestic crisis about to erupt.
We are not morning people, any of us, but Phoebe is the worst. A first-grader who has to rise before dawn for the first time in her life, my daughter is daily pulled into the world like an infant at birth: squalling and flailing. Once drawn from her warm, rumpled bed, she latches on to her father’s back like a newborn to its mother’s breast and is lugged down the steps, piggy-back, to the sofa. There she curls herself until the third call for breakfast. We adults secretly envy her, wishing we could kick against the false light of winter mornings … or at least have someone carry us through the cold dark into day.
So it was a violent awakening when Camilla jumped, pointed at the sink, and shrieked, “A snake!” Phoebe squealed. Michael jumped. I looked around for a frying pan.
Obviously, this was unreal. I must still be in bed, simply having dreamt of rising, brewing coffee, eating oatmeal. What else could possibly explain a snake in the kitchen sink … in the suburbs … in southern Ohio … in January? But no, even if we were half-asleep seconds ago, we were all wide-eyed now.
And with consciousness, came reason. “Not snake. No. She must mean worm,” I thought. “Still … what’s a caterpillar doing here in January?” Since Michael and Phoebe were still cowering behind the microwave, I advanced into the danger zone, and there I beheld it: not a snake, nor a worm, but a spider. Not a big hairy spider, mind you, but a frail fawn-colored specimen with a body the size of a pin-head and legs like the lashes on a newborn. I grabbed a tissue and, in a single motion, disposed of the poor creature. (It was January, after all. Not much point in setting her free in the backyard.)
So now, over family dinners, we tease Camilla about snakes in the chicken until we’re all giddy once again.
But sometimes, when I sit alone at the kitchen table, as I do now, I ponder the dim hour of January dawn: that dull space between sleep and waking, the charcoal border of our dreams. This is where suburban kitchens are mistaken for poultry and winter-born children grow backwards to infancy. Here, the trickster snake sheds its skin, and the spider spins her winter’s tale.
Sheila Hassell Hughes is Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of English, and former Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, at the University of Dayton. Originally from British Columbia, Canada, she now lives with her husband, their 9-year old daughter, and two black cats in Kettering, Ohio. She earned her BA (British Columbia) and MA (Toronto) in English and her PhD (Emory) in women’s studies. Her research focuses on gender and religion in Louise Erdrich’s work and on the voices of girls in urban schools, and she has been working on a volume of poems tentatively titled “These Skins.” She has published scholarly articles and poems in journals such as MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the U.S., SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures, African American Review, American Quarterly, Violence Against Women, Religion and Literature, Literature and Theology, and the Lullwater Review.