The first time it really hits me, I'm staring at the peeling paint on the doorknob.
I long ago memorized the feeling of coming home – the click of my key in the door, the scent of Mom's stir fry ... [+]
My father was a somniloquist; he only talked to me in his sleep. Lured at night by his one-sided conversation one room over, I would escape the cot I'd grown out of, gaze at my sleeping mother, and join the dog on the rug at the foot of their bed. Every morning for years, Father would find me and put me back, so I was told. I never woke in those moments, so I don't remember ever being happy in my father's arms. Mother attributed what she called my "strange behavior," to an overzealous love of a mutt that I refused to call anything but Dog. Father said it was normal. This calling my mother Mother, my father Father, my sister Sister, and the dog Dog, and that I would grow out of it all. Neither of them was right. I did not grow out of calling them anything more than what they were to me. Mother, Father, Sister and Dog. And although I did like the dog and he did keep me warm on the floor, it was not Dog that drew me out of my cot at night. Unknown to the three of them, while they slept, I lay awake, and listened to my Father speak.
Sometimes I would sit up and watch Father waving his arm in the air, talking loudly to an invisible face. I'd wait to see his teeth appear when he laughed and wonder what the joke was. Other times I'd curl up close to Dog, tuck my feet into my nightdress and let Father's voice send me to sleep as if reading me a bedtime story. His mumblings started as nursery rhymes, grew into fairytales, and eventually became Greek myths.
My mother was a deep sleeper. She never woke, even the night when he knocked over the bedside lamp. That was the first time I saw him sleepwalk. I listened to him set the lamp right and watched as his bare feet crossed the salmon-pink carpet of the bedroom and disappeared onto the dark landing. He padded down the stairs and out the front door, with a quiet click. I climbed onto the window seat to watch as he crossed our perfect lawn, taking the footpath over to Mrs. Neighbor's house on the other side of the close. There, he stood on the lit porch, turned the door handle and let himself in.
Mrs. Neighbor's husband had died the year before, and Father sometimes cut the grass for her. I offered to do it once, but she said it was a man's job. I wasn't sure if she thought I was too young or too much a girl. The sleepwalking happened every few weeks, but whether it happened or not, every morning I was back in my bed and he was back in his. And the next night, without fail, Father would tell Mrs. Neighbor, in his sleep, that the grass wouldn't need a trim now for a while.
I was not allowed to have sleepovers because I wet the bed, I was told. Mother expected I would grow out of it. But when I still hadn't by age ten, despite the rules of going to the toilet before bed, not drinking after six, and Father's various advised punishments, Mother suggested that it was no longer a subject to be discussed in front of Father. One night, a week before my eleventh birthday, I wet the bed. I tried to wake Mother, but she didn't stir. I couldn't find her there behind her closed lids; the night had switched her off like it had turned Father on. So I changed the bed myself, got a clean set of pajamas, and curled up on the rug next to Dog. That night Father talked about little girls. I wondered if he meant me and my sister and waited to hear what he had to say. In the morning Father told my mother that he woke with a strange taste in his mouth. I'd washed his mouth out with soap; I'd heard him say his mother used to do it. But when I'd seen the bar of soap we kept by the bath, I had thought it was too big to fit, so instead I'd decided to drip some dish soap into his open mouth. He was in the toilet with an upset stomach as I left for school. I kissed Mother goodbye and didn't hug her too tightly, just how she liked.
The words in the night were so precious because in the daytime my father did not speak to me. He talked to Mother who would repeat to me what he said, as if I hadn't heard him, as if I wasn't there. This was normal. "Children should be seen and not heard," his mother had told him. What that had to do with it, I didn't know. He only looked at me when I wasn't watching. I would catch him if I suddenly turned around, or if I woke from a noise, I might find him there, his face in mine. Then he would freeze and look away, as if that meant we both could not see. And I would close my eyes and pretend I was asleep. I thought this was the way with a father and daughter. Though I could not remember how he was with my little sister, before she died. Did he look at her the same way?
I was not allowed to watch television when he was home. Father thought it was too loud and too bad an influence. He much preferred me reading. Perhaps he thought there was less knowledge to be found in books. But I read everything I could get my hands on, always searching for answers. I would read fairytales and then write my own, mixing and matching plots and characters; I called one "The Sleeping Beast." At school, although not fond of Shakespeare, I found some lines hypnotizing. I would write them over and over again in my copies of the plays: "To die, to sleep." "The death of each day's life." I was obsessed with the picture in my art textbook called The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. I traced it and hung it on my bedroom wall. It represented something I recognized, but could not name. Like when Steinbeck's Lennie died and though I was sad, I also thought it might be for the best. I was not sure if I wished for me or Father to fall into that endless sleep. Or what I wished would stop or begin.
On Sundays my father slept in and was only called for lunch. Mother thought he was tired from a six-day work week, but I knew he was catching up on lost sleep. Those mornings I'd sneak into the bedroom to listen to him sing. Lying there on his back, arms and legs straight in the bed, mouth wide open, he sang in his sleep. It was the only time he did. Mother had the washing machine and radio on, so she heard nothing. I sat on the clothes hamper and listened until I heard the radio channel change downstairs, or the washing machine stop, and then I knew the silence would wake him and take him away from his sleeping Sunday worship. I learned the hymns he sang, off by heart, by the time I was eleven, even though we never went to church. I heard one of the hymns play during my sister's funeral at the crematorium, opened my mouth to sing but caught myself in time and closed it again. I sang it with him the next Sunday, in his sleep instead.
To hear my father speak to me was not the only reason I listened to him in his sleep. I felt a kind of power over him then that I did not have when he was awake. I discovered the truth in his dreams. Not only what he thought, but how vulnerable he was as he slept.
As I got older, and understood more of the world, I searched for what I might have blocked out as a child. My imagination had Father in many roles. In black and white silent movies, he was Father, the adulterous Casanova who drugged my innocent mother and tied her to the train track, then free to have his wicked way with Mrs. Neighbor. In 80s technicolor, Father was the repentant priest, defrocked for sins that soap could not have washed clean. In a two-act-play, Father was the altar boy, who went on to do what had been done to him. And Mother was the Medea, driven to filicide to punish Father for loving my sister more.
There was some truth in my fictions, but my childhood memory blurs the storyline. All unprovable, improbable and unbelievable, Father used to say, making me repeat it until I fell asleep again. In my dreams Father was a monster. But in reality, all I could say against him was that my father was a somniloquist, and he only talked to me in his sleep.