The moon is fat and yellow like a great big cat’s eye up over all the rooftops, which means that Papa will be home soon. He comes at night, at night only, and on nights like this, with big fat moons and bright stars, he expects dinner.
All the other children say their fathers expect dinner every single night. So in comparison, Meribeth’s Papa is much nicer and gentler than theirs.
Nobody believes her about her Papa, though, who comes only at night. They say she must be making him up. It’s easier to agree and say that she was, and let it rot that way, than it is to insist. People are starting to let it go, though some people still make fun of her for lying about having a father after all.
Once she asked if she could have a friend over to prove that Papa was real and she was no liar, but Mommy said ‘no’ immediately and made her go straight to bed. Papa told her it was probably for the best anyway. He didn’t want his special time with his family to be shared with strangers who could never understand.
Katie Faith who lives down the street says her father’s favorite dinner is fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and Jean on the diagonal says that nothing beats her mother’s pot roast. Ginger’s father loves beef stew, and Vivian’s father is a fiend for pork chops.
At the table for Papa are wild onion shoots plucked from the backyard, two dozen plus two pretty bird’s eggs, pieces of root from the ancient oak at the park (dug up by dusk’s dim light, because the little touch of sunlight gives it a spice of danger), and a honey ham because Mommy makes the best glaze in the whole world.
Aside from the ham, these foods are only for Papa, not for little girls like Meribeth or ladies like Mommy. If Mommy gets up during dinner, though, Papa will sneak her a little sliver of root, or perhaps one of the smaller bird’s eggs for her to gulp up right quick before Mommy returns.
Dinners with Papa are always so nice. He asks all about what Meribeth has been up to, and they listen to the radio shows she likes instead of just the boring terrible news. All the drapes are pulled shut as tight as they can, and big white sheets are nailed up over them just in case, because Papa wants nobody else intruding on his special time with his family.
“A man loves his privacy,” that’s what Papa always says, and Meribeth repeats it staunchly to herself every time she wants to peek out the drapes and see what everyone else is up to.
She thinks it’d be nice, to look out on the rest of the neighborhood and know that all the other girls that are nice to her at school, and even the ones who aren’t, are also eating dinner with their fathers It’d be nice to be the same as them.
But Papa asks that every window be locked and barred, and that all the drapes be drawn, and that heavy sheets be nailed up over them.
It has its own appeal. Because the sheets are so white, they reflect the candlelight very nicely. When Papa is home, the only light he allows is candlelight, because the electric lights make him itchy and wavery. Everything is cozy and close in the flickering light. Sometimes, Meribeth pretends she is a princess in the Middle Ages where there was no electric lights or radios, and Papa finds this very charming.
“If it was the Middle Ages, I could live with you all the time,” Papa will say. “And everyone would know you were my little girl and they would know to avert their gazes when you spoke to them and we could have dinner together every single night.”
After dinner, Meribeth clears the table and helps Mommy with the dishes. Mommy is always quiet during dinners because she likes to watch Meribeth and Papa be together. It does her heart good. She says this all the time.
Her words are heavy, though. If the curtains could be open and everyone could see that she does have a husband, Meribeth bets that she would be a lot happier.
The other children at school are mean to Meribeth because they don’t know she has Papa. They say terrible things about Mommy and call her such names. So their parents must do the same to Mommy.
Meribeth could tell Papa that it bothers her and he would make the problem go away, because this is what husbands and fathers do for their wives and daughters. But Mommy says Meribeth mustn’t complain, because Papa is always busy and has a lot on his mind, and it would only worry him.
Papa says that once people are in the ground, they don’t have to be on anyone’s mind except the flowers’ and the worms’, but maybe he only said that to make Meribeth feel better. Maybe it’s one of the lies that grown-ups tell children. There are very many of those.
Once the dishes are done is Meribeth’s favorite part of dinners with Papa, which is when he goes to the den and listens to the big radio and reads his books by the fireplace, sitting in his favorite armchair and sipping brandy. Meribeth always sits with him and reads her own books so that when she’s an adult she will be very wise like Papa.
Papa knows everything there is to know about the important things. He knows why the basilisk fears the rooster, and how to drink whispers right out of the hearts of people. He knows where all the kings are buried and when they’ll wake up, and the names of all the bones in the body, and the secret names of all the stars, even the ones the scientists haven’t found yet.
Even though he knows so many things, he’s never mean about it, and he listens very nicely when Meribeth tells him the things that she knows. Things like five times two being the same as five plus five, and all the words of the Preamble, and how water goes all around over and over.
He tells her, “you will know so many things, Meribeth. All the things they teach you in school and all the things I will teach you. You will be a knower of many things and they will come from all over the hear the things that you know, when you come to live with me.”
That’s Papa’s biggest promise. One day, when she’s older, Meribeth will go and live with him. Walking in shadows and listening to the dreams of the ancient kings, that’ll be just the best.
Except, Meribeth will very much miss Mommy, and since nobody believes that Papa is real, what will Mommy say to explain where she has gone? Papa says that he will handle it and not to worry.
“There are ways to make it so that Mommy can go where we go. But only if she wants. After all, she gave me you, so I wouldn’t want to make her do anything she didn’t want to do. It’s only fair.”
It’s always very late when Mommy finally comes to get Meribeth and put her to bed. Usually, it’s not a school night when Papa comes to visit, but Mommy says there are standards, and she doesn’t want to disrupt Meribeth’s schedule too much.
Her room is right next to Mommy’s, so she can hear them talking, late into the night. Lots of times there’s heavy breathing and funny noises, as happens with all people who are married, and she tries her best not to listen because it’s icky and embarrassing.
When they aren’t doing that, though, they talk about all sorts of things. Meribeth hardly understands a lot of it, it’s all grown-up talk, which is probably why the wait for her to be in bed before they start discussing it.
They talk about ‘the contract’ a lot, and about Meribeth’s ‘development.’ About the night world and darkness before the beginning and the root-gnawers. About ‘transaxial structural integrity’ and ‘intramundal tunneling’ and what they’ll do when the time comes to ‘smuggle her out of here.’
They talk about whether or not Mommy will ‘toast to Socrates’ so she can enter the night world, or whether or not she’ll ‘run disruption’ on this side after Meribeth has gone to live with Papa.
Sometimes Mommy cries. And worst of all, sometimes Papa cries, too, the house juddering on its foundations as he does, shadows vibrating like guitar strings. The ringing in Meribeth’s ears is terrible, and most of the time, none of the electric lights in the house work the next morning and all the food in the fridge has gone bad.
Meribeth wants very badly to get out of bed and open the bedroom door and comfort Papa when she hears that, but then they’ll know she was listening. So she just has to lay there and wait for the world to stop shivering, wait for her ears to stop ringing.
Every morning, no matter what, Papa leaves her a nice note and a piece of fruit for breakfast. When Mommy isn’t looking, Meribeth unfolds the note and finds the sliver of root affixed to the paper. She pops it in her mouth quickly and swallows before Mommy can turn back around.
Why Papa doesn’t want Mommy to know she’s eating the roots, Meribeth doesn’t know and is too nervous to ask. The answer might be more nonsense or confusing grown-up stuff, and for now, Meribeth is too busy with school to think about it.
Of course, Papa visits other nights, to comfort Meribeth or ask how she’s been doing. But dinner nights are always the most special, and always her favorite. If they could eat together every night as a family…
Not yet, though. When Meribeth goes to the night world with Mommy–she’s going to convince her to come, one way or another–they’ll be together always, just like Papa is always talking about. Until then, she goes to school and pretends she has no father at all like all the other children say, and waits.