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Movie Night

By Natalie Singer-Velush


The movie begins lovely. Somewhere in rural Japan an aging bamboo cutter is working in the forest. Toward the end of the day, the setting sun is spilling, golden-peach, through the bamboo stalks. The sky beyond the grove moves from this peach to honey, to amber, to a sustained pause of breath quickly cooling. In a small clearing, a bamboo shoot pushes up through the earth. From inside, a silver glow. The man peers into the bamboo flower; there lies a tiny sleeping girl, watercolored. Startled, he falls in love. The cutter cups the girl in his palm. He will take her home to his wife, where they will raise her joyfully as their own. As they watch this animated story, my daughters’ faces are open moons.

*   *   *

When I was 10, I loved a book in which the protagonist, a girl on the cusp of moving beyond girlhood, like I was, loved the colors aquamarine, lime and purple. She loved the colors in combination, how, in concert, they satisfied an unnamed need she had to see things a certain pleasing way. Many changes were happening to the girl, things which, out of fear of the unknown, I couldn’t think about directly. But I could hold that wheel of colors in my mind, and I searched relentlessly for a triple-color combination of my own, some crafted palette that could pass as guidance.

*   *   *

The day we watched the movie I overheard my youngest daughter say: If you sat on a cloud and looked through the cloud like glass, you could see. See what, I wondered, knowing as soon as I did that what she meant was everything.

*   *   *

The bamboo girl blossoms under the care of the old couple. She grows quickly, peculiarly so, and in the permissive air of the country she begins to run with the band of nearby children. She laughs; she runs and runs. She whispers to bugs. The blades of grass shift in the summer breezes, paintbrushed in diffuse light, pale greens and lemon. The earth’s dirt a crumbling cake of dried red and copper under the girl’s bare, pinwheeling feet. The air, infused with sweet melon, echoes the chorus of dragonfly wings. She even finds a boy to love. All is as it should be. Until, one day, the father finds a pile of gold glowing in a stalk of bamboo, offered to him in the same way the tiny girl was. He becomes convinced that heaven has shined down on the family, that the girl is truly a princess and must be raised in a mansion in the city, as a noble. The parents shower the bamboo girl with mountains of precious fabrics and silks and take her off to a new life, where she is trained in the ways of docile, obedient, inert princesses. The luminosity leaves her face. A string of wealthy princes come courting, determined to possess her as their own. The girl’s father, enamored with this life of riches, becomes greedy for a lucrative marriage and pushes his daughter to give herself away.

*   *   *

This is where the shouting at the TV begins. Don’t do it, we urge her, we order. Run away! Find the boy you loved from the country. Follow your desires, resist! All of us, the 8- and 10-year-old girls and me, plus my own 10-year-old self, are on the edge of the couch.

*   *   *

When I was young I had an imaginary life at night, after I was tucked in to sleep. My bed became a floating boat on a distant sea, and I rode the sea wherever it took me with a crew of stuffed animals, a white polar bear with a heart around its neck, a nervous gray donkey, a celadon bunny. There were dangers out there, to be sure, but I had jurisdiction over the boat and its destinations: While I sailed, I could do anything I pleased. It was a shame I had to be the only person on board, I might have thought from beneath the sheets (or not), but that was the cost of my freedom.

*   *   *

Can I stay with you forever, my daughter once asked me. I answered yes, yes.

*   *   *

I had checked the rating of the film ahead of time—PG on a trusted website with the emotional limits of children in mind. But there was no warning that the little bamboo girl who became a noble princess would be forced back to the place from which, it turns out, she first came: the moon. That the wealthy princes would all be frauds (yes of course) but that the good boy from the country, in the bamboo girl’s absence—during her time spent bending to the will of others—would marry someone else. That, in the end, there was no way for her to undo the knot of things, to go in reverse. That she would be forced to drift away from the impossible world on a cloud, the memory of her girl life erased, the future an approaching blank sphere.

*   *   *

I tuck my girls in, faces pale, their soft bodies long, brows furrowed. I kiss their cheeks, which smell of pink cherry blossoms. We have talked about the “lesson” of the movie—rich does not make you happy, we work it through and all decide.

What we don’t say is what else: How fast the moon arches across the windowpane. How unready we are.

Natalie Singer-Velush is mother to two daughters and the editor of a Seattle-based parenting magazine. She is also experiencing an acute case of “feeling old” as she returns to school to earn her MFA in creative writing and poetics alongside a bunch of idealistic twentysomethings, none of whom have children. Natalie keeps herself as young as possible with endless cups of coffee and red velvet cupcakes. You can find her on Twitter @Natalie_Writes.

Photo: Jason Ortego

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