She first said his name at dinner. It was early in the week, Monday, maybe Tuesday, and I’d just arrived home from work. Lasagna sat on the stove, bubbling around the edges. My wife, Mandy, had already cut it into squares and was scooping it out with a spatula. I was about to drop my bum onto its usual seat at the table when my three-year-old daughter, Ella, spoke.
“No, Daddy, you can’t sit in that chair,” she said. “Somebody’s already sitting there.”
We play this game often. Each week, Ella chooses a new imaginary friend and Mandy and I have to guess who it is. Sometimes it’s a fictional character, someone from a book or a DVD. Other times it’s a boy from our neighbourhood — she never chooses a girl — like Nicky, the eight-year-old on the corner who owns a trampoline, or Watson, the amiable chatterbox who lives next door to Nicky. I began with the usual suspects.
“Is it Aladdin?”
“Is it Watson?”
“No.” (Giggle, giggle.)
“I don’t know. Who is it?”
Oh my. I really didn’t see that one coming. Mandy, who was cutting a slab of lasagna into tiny pieces for our one-year-old son, Jack, started to laugh.
“Did she just say … ?” I asked.
“Yes, she did,” Mandy replied.
“Where did that come from?”
It came, I soon learned, from a song. At church, Ella’s Sunday school class had sung This Little Light of Mine. Children like the song because there are actions to go with the lyrics. While singing, you hold up a finger and pretend it’s a candle. During one part, you blow on your finger after singing the lyric, “Won’t let Satan blow it out.”
Although Ella had no idea who he was, she did, for some reason, like the name. And that was enough for her to adopt him as her new invisible playmate. I’m not an expert on organized religion, but I thought going to church helped keep evil deities out of people’s lives. Thanks to my church, however, Satan was sitting at our table — in my seat, no less — waiting for his pasta.
I contemplated encouraging Ella to choose a different friend, but then I would have to explain why I disapproved of her current one. And as any good parent knows, you wait until the fourth birthday before telling a child about the devil or eternal damnation or any other hell-related topic. So, we were stuck with Satan: worst houseguest ever.
For the rest of the week, Satan tagged along wherever Ella went. When Ella had a bath, Satan had a bath. (He likes rubber ducks.) When Ella played with her Dora the Explorer castle, Satan did too. (He thought the secret trap door was neat.) When Ella coloured in her Winnie the Pooh colouring book, Satan picked up a crayon and joined her. (His favourite colour, surprisingly, is pink.)
On Sunday evening, after our usual bedtime routine — brush teeth, three books, kiss, nuzzle, hug — I tucked Ella in and turned to leave her room.
“Daddy, somebody’s sleeping in my bed,” she said.
“Oh, who?” I asked, turning back around.
“Is it Christopher Robin?”
“Is it Nicky?”
“No.” (Giggle, giggle.)
“I don’t know. Who?”
I braced myself for the answer. To Ella, Satan was just a name, no different than Michael or Jonathan. And even though I knew that, I didn’t like the idea of Beelzebub sleeping in my little girl’s bed. I could just picture him, lying there in his red pyjamas, his tail curled up behind him, his horns peaking out from beneath the pink-and-green comforter.
“Zachary!” Ella shouted.
I didn’t know who Zachary was but I didn’t care. My daughter’s bed was devil-free. Satan, much to my delight, had left the building.
“Oh, that’s nice,” I said. “Goodnight sweetheart. Goodnight Zachary.”
Zachary, whom I later learned is a boy at church, remained Ella’s imaginary friend for a week. After Zachary there was Diego from Dora the Explorer, the prince from Snow White (don’t know his name) and the prince from Cinderella (ditto).
They’re all boys, as usual. But at least none is a diabolical lord of darkness who delights in evil and rules over a massive army of hideous demons. What more could a father ask for?