The Stolen Child

adapted by Joan Stockbridge. There was a path that stretched from here to there. On one side of the path, tall mountains loomed. Along the other, the cold sea moaned. Along this path came two fairy women, wrapped tightly in dark cloaks. As they walked along, they saw a bundle in the path. It mewed faintly, like a tired cat. Snatching it up, they tore off the cloths. “It’s a baby,” said one.

“A mortal baby,” crowed the other.

After looking around to make sure no one was watching, one fairy hid the baby under her cloak, and the two fairy women scurried away, more quickly than they had come before.

After the fairy women disappeared, a fishing boat came sailing along the coast. The man at the tiller happened to glance at the cliffs. “What’s that!”

“Nothing,” said the other.

“There’s something on those cliffs.”

“You’re daft.”

But the man at the tiller turned about and headed for shore. He steered through the rocky shoals and landed at the foot of the cliffs. The men climbed steadily until they came to a rocky ledge. A young woman lay there, still as death. The tillerman knelt down and put his ear to her mouth. When he felt a faint puff of breath, he knew she was still alive. The men carried her down to the boat and sailed off as fast as they could. When they reached the harbor, they called for the women folk to come and take care of her.

For several days she lay still, more dead than alive. The women took turns staying by her side, moistening her lips with damp cloths, tucking the blankets around her chilled body. At last, she opened her eyes. “Where is my baby?” she cried. “Bring me my baby.” At that the women looked at one another. For they had no baby to give her. An old woman took her hand. “Be brave, daughter. For your baby must have fallen from your arms and landed in the sea.”

“He did not!” the mother cried. “I wrapped him in his blanket and laid him in the path when I went to find water. I know he is safe.”

At that the women shook their heads, but they summoned the menfolk and sent them up and down the path, seeking any news of the baby. The men searched the livelong day, but came back shaking their heads. No one had seen or heard of a baby left on the path. When they brought the young mother the sad news, she tossed her blanket aside. “My baby is alive. I will find him.”

“Shhh,” the women soothed her. “You are still weak. Wait till you are stronger. Then you can go on your way.” At that the young mother fell back into bed. She bided her time, eating the food they brought her and resting until her strength returned. Then she rose from the bed. “Farewell,” she said. “If I live, I will return with my son. If I die, so it must be.” The villagers were sad to see her go, for they had grown to love the brave young mother and they were sure her baby was dead.

The young mother journeyed for many weeks, stopping at every croft and village. But no one had heard of a baby left on a path by the sea. She journeyed until her feet were bleeding, and her clothes were torn. At last she came upon a camp of gypsies and her heart beat faster in her chest, for the gypsies traveled far and wide, and if any had news of her baby, it would be them. When she appeared at the edge of their circle, they fell silent, staring at the gaunt young woman with tangled gold hair and wild eyes. They made room for her beside their fire and brought warm water to bathe her feet. They gave her food from their pot. But when she asked if they had news of her baby, they shook their heads and said no, all the babies in the camp were their own. At that the young mother broke into sobs and said she could not go on, for her baby was all she had in this world.

The gypsies huddled together, dark heads bent close in a circle. When they broke apart, their leader came to the young mother. “Do not despair,” he said. “We will bring you to our ancient grandmother, the Wise One, who knows all there is to know on earth.” And they did. They brought the young mother with them in their own caravan, feeding her and caring for her as if she were one of their own. And at last they came to a great gypsy encampment, and they brought the young mother to an old crone sitting beside a fire. The two women sat side by side, holding hands in silence. At last the grandmother rose and threw some herbs into the fire. When she returned to her seat, she held the young mother’s hand tightly. “The news I have is not good. Your baby has been taken by the fairy women of the Sidh. He is being held in their dark underground kingdom. Nothing that has entered that kingdom has ever returned to the light of day.”

“What must I do?”

The grandmother sat silent for a long while. At last she spoke. “The Sidh are a greedy folk, always lusting after precious things. But they have no art or skill of their own. Whatever they get, they get by thievery or bargaining. You could buy your way into their dark realm with something rare and beautiful.”

“I have nothing. No family. No money. How can I get something so rare?”

“There I cannot help you. And you will need something else, even more precious, to buy your baby back once you are in the dark realm.”

At that the mother hung her head, so confused and despairing was she. The ancient grandmother put her hands on the mother’s head and blessed her, protecting her against all things made of earth, air, fire and water. Then she sent the young mother on her way.

For a while the young mother was numb and dazed, so impossible did the task seem. But gradually the haze cleared. She set herself to remembering all the wondrous things she had heard tell of, and at last two came into her mind: the white cloak of Nechtan and the golden harp of Wrad. And she knew what she must do.

She set off for the sea and ended up not far from the place where she had fallen. On hands and knees she crawled over the rocks, gathering the downy white feathers that had fallen from the breasts of the eider ducks. And the ancient grandmother’s blessing held true, for she was not bruised by the rocks, nor torn by the wind, nor burnt by the sun, nor drenched by the sea. And when she had gathered armfuls of the white feathers she sat on the shore and wove them into a cloak. And when she was finished, that cloak looked like a cloud that had drifted down from the sky. And then she took her hair, her golden hair that fell to her waist, and chopped it all off. She took the golden strands and wove them into a border, a shining border of suns and moons and stars.

Then she folded the cloak and lay it safe under a rock and went down the beach again, gathering the skeletons of long-dead sea creatures, creatures that had lain so long on the bottom of the sea that their bones were polished smooth as ivory. She took those bones and bent them into a harp frame and then strung the harp with her own golden hair. When she was finished, she plucked the harp. The note rang out so full of grief and love and longing that the wild birds themselves paused in the air at the sound of it. Then she took her harp under her arm and placed the cloak on her shoulders and headed for the dark kingdom.

She traveled by night and by day, by highway and byway, over mountains and across rivers, and at last she came to Sidhean, the dark kingdom of the fairy folk of the Sidh. She hid behind a tree, watching the fairy folk enter. Now the Sidh do not look so different from you and from me. Their ears are a bit pointed, and their hands– those hands that have no skill to make or mend-are a bit like claws, but except for that the Sidh look like ordinary mortals. As the moon rose full, a late-arriving fairy hurried towards the gate. The young mother stepped from behind the tree, swirling the cloak as she faced the fairy. “What!” began the fairy, whose eyes narrowed at the sight of the shining cloak. “How much do you want for it,” she said, hands darting to pluck at the shimmering border.

“It is not for sale.”

“Place it on the ground, and I will cover it with gold.”

“I made this cloak with my own hands and embroidered it with my own hair, and I will not sell it– but I will give it to you, if you bring me into your kingdom.”

“Yes,” said the fairy, greedily snatching at the cloak, “Give it to me.”

“Once we are inside,” said the young mother, who knew the Sidh were a thieving folk who would steal whatever they could.

The fairy grabbed the young mother’s hand and drew her through the dark gates. They hurried through long, winding passageways and at last entered the great hall. Fairies came up hissing at the young mother, but she swirled the cloak cunningly, and thrust it at the fairy who had brought her through the gates. Seeing the cloak, the fairies lost all interest in the mother. They swarmed the fairy, snatching at the cloak, as the young mother strode towards the throne at the end of the hall.

The king sat on the throne, his head wreathed in gold, his clawed hands toying with a jeweled necklace. “A mortal,” he hissed and sat upright, as the young mother approached.

“I have brought you this,” she said, holding aloft the harp.

“I have harps aplenty.”

“But have you one like this?” And she plucked a golden note strung from her own hair, and the sound was so full of grief and love and longing that the hall fell silent, and all turned to look at her.

“What do you want for it,” the king asked casually, trying to hide his desire.

“It is not for sale.”

“Everything has its price,” he said and ordered his servants to bring gold.

“I don’t want gold,” she said as they heaped it around her feet.

“Jewels?” he said and his servants ran to bring armfuls of emeralds and rubies.

“Neither gold nor jewels,” she said, and plucked the harp again.

“Anything,” he said, “I will give you anything.”

“Then give me back my baby. The one your women stole from the path by the sea.”

And the king was displeased for he’d had a mind to keep that mortal baby to serve him in his dark realm. But he wanted that harp. He motioned his servants to fetch the child and then reached out his hand for the harp.

“Not till my baby is in my arms,” she said.

And when the servants brought the baby, he saw his mother and held out his arms to her. When she pressed him safe against her breast, she handed over the harp, and the king began to play. The notes were so full of grief and love and longing that the fairies froze in place, listening, and for all we know they are still there today. But the young mother made her way out of that dark kingdom and back up into the light of day. She journeyed back to the village of fisherfolk who had loved her well, and she and her son lived there many a day.

Love and Fear: Sharing Stories in the Shelter
by Joan Stockbridge

This story has deep power and significance for me. The first time I told it was at a Family Camp in northern California. I had just heard that a teen girl, a close friend of our family, had been killed in a bike accident that day. As I told the story I felt that Carrie Jo was quite close, listening from another realm, and I continue to feel her presence when I tell this story. I have told it maybe two dozen times, mostly in shelters for homeless and abused women. It is a powerful tale for those women, many of whom have had custody issues, and many of whom feel deeply conflicted and ashamed about their ability to protect and care for their children. Since the subject matter of the story is so likely to be loaded, when I tell it in a shelter, I always warn the women that I am going to tell a story about a woman’s journey to recover her stolen child, but I add that it could be heard as a journey to recover anything of deep personal importance.

I like to tell this story slowly, to linger on details. I believe that the sheer respite of sitting and listening to a story is healing, particularly for the audience in a women’s shelter. Being immersed in story provides a break from the nearly-constant preoccupation and anxiety which haunts many of them. As I tell, their bodies soften, their mouths relax, their breathing slowly begin to synchronize. When I tell this story in shelters, I build up the portrait of the young mother, her near-death state on the ledge, her physical hardship during the journey. It is terribly important to the shelter women that the young mother comes up with what she needs to save her child out of her own resources: her own hair, her hands, her memories. It is also a source of hope for them to hear that strangers, namely the gypsies and the fisherfolk, took an interest in the young mother and helped her on her journey. The appearance of the mysterious animal or human helper is so often a theme in folk tales, and I believe that idea is an important one to keep affirming as a contrast to the sometimes cynical or despairing aspects of contemporary society. The other theme that is so deeply moving to the women is how the young mother keeps going, despite all obstacles. “Keeping your eye on what you love gets you past what you’re afraid of,” is how one woman summed up the story, a phrase which became a refrain for that group during the rest of their group sessions.

I have been telling stories for fifteen years, but am new to applied telling; consequently, the part of working in a therapeutic setting that is most challenging is what to do after the story is over. That is when I feel like I am setting sail for uncharted waters, not knowing what we will discover or what conditions we will encounter. I’ve found that carefully planning the story sessions has been of enormous importance, giving me a sense of the direction to aim for, even though what will happen at any given moment is an unknown. I am learning more and more that this work require spontaneity, improvisation, and an ability to move with what is happening in the room, but especially given that fluidity, it feels important to have goals clearly in mind. To that end, I’ve made up a simple process notes form, which I use to plan and then to critique the sessions. The process notes, along with the healing story listserv and reading suggestions culled from the listserv, have been my primary tools for developing as a teller in therapeutic settings. I’m including some edited process notes from a session where I told The Stolen Child, in the hopes that it will give an overview of a whole session, as well as a sense of how process notes can function as a learning tool.

Client Needs and Issues

Good group. 12 women, normal issues of anger management, sticking with recovery programs, need hope, struggling with cold weather

Planning Goals for Program

Create possibilities for aha moments, insights

Deepen group support and bonding

Offer hope, encouragement, support for continuing recovery


Description and Source – Stolen Child

Time line of Program
10:00: Hi-5 game for warm up/introductions
10:10 Visualization/Relaxation exercise for deep relaxation, receptivity
10:15 The Stolen Child
10:45 Conversation: What images or moments in the story caught your attention? Steer towards journey theme.
10:55 Character Exercise: Pick a character from story, close eyes, answer questions silently. Get in small group and share what you learned about your character, or image, or place. Share in big group.
11:30 Group poem Everything fell apart when/I suddenly knew I had to/Now, I’m a sitting here,
11:55 Celtic blessing to close


What worked?
Hi5 game was great
Visualization was great. They clearly enjoyed the relaxation, and it put them into a deeper place of receptivity for the story.
Story went well.
Follow up was good, but could be refined as noted below.

What needed improvement?
After the story, I could have engaged them better in conversation. Leapt too fast into the character exercise. Should have slowed down and let more emerge from them. They liked the character exercise and had fun, had some insights, but it was too similar to the group poem, which is where the real pay-off came. Find something that is different, more physical perhaps, or rhythmic as an intermediate activity after the conversation and before the group poem.

Notes or Ideas for Upcoming Sessions

Always do a visualization/relaxation exercise before a story.
Always do an introductory game.
Look for drama or rhythmic exercises to do before group poem.

I’ll close with the women’s own words. Here is the poem they composed aloud, each offering lines, which I wrote on a whiteboard.

Healing Pathways

It all fell apart when—-
I didn’t finish high school;
I lost my kids;
Violence escalated in our home;
I lost– I mean, I quit– my job;
My mom kicked me out;
My dad didn’t come back into my life;
My daughter tried to kill herself;
I became homeless.

I suddenly knew I had to—-
Move to another state;
Make a change in my life;
Resolve a lot of issues;
Find safety and protect my children and myself;
Change my attitude about my anger and my rage;
Pull myself together;
Become an empowered woman;
Stop depending on someone else to save me and instead save myself;
Pick myself up, dust myself off, and go forward;
Build my self-esteem.

Now, here I am—-
In Women’s Empowerment, doing real good and changing my life;
Searching for self esteem;
Realizing all the work I’ve done to make changes for the better of us all;
jumping through hoops; cutting through red tape; doing the circus act;
Realizing I will overcome the obstacles and regain my life;
Dealing with reality;
Getting ready to change my life again;
Realizing my faults and trying to correct them;
Trying to forget the past;
Trying to forgive myself;
Ready to accept change;
Ready to sign up to get inside and off that cold river.

Story Sources and Notes

Sidh is pronounced She. Their kingdom, Sidhean, is pronounced She-an.

Different versions of The Stolen Child can be found in:
Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, Kathleen Raglan, W.W. Norton and Company, 1998 p. 3-10

Thistle and Thyme, Tales and Legends from Scotland, Sorche Nic Leodhas, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1962, p. 46-61

The Moon in the Well, Wisdom Tales To Transform Your Life, Family and Community, Erica Helm Meade, Open Court, 2001, pp78-82

Questions and Answers

Debbie Stinson asked:

“What is the High-5 exercise?”

The High Five exercise is very simple and playful. I usually use it at the beginning of a group. It’s meant to break the ice, pick up the energy and begin to cohere a group. Everyone stands around in a circle, and they step in and “high-five” others in response to your prompts.
“High Five if you have ever —
ridden a bike
braided your hair
written a resume
eaten a corn dog
walked on a beach
sung a karioki song etc..;
the prompts can be tailored to the group. They should be totally non-threatening and everyone hopefully can high five for at least one if not more of the prompts…

What is an example of the relaxation exercise mentioned? Also, I’ve read that relaxation exercises can be difficult for some, as they sometimes bring back memories of abuse. Do you have one that works for women who have a history of abuse?

The majority of the women in my groups have a history of abuse, so I am sensitive to this issue. When I introduce a relaxation exercise, I always say that they can keep their eyes open if they want and remind them that the purpose of the exercise is for them to feel relaxed, so if they begin to feel uncomfortable they should open their eyes and “return” to the room, and just sit while the rest of the group finishes. I use very general, positive-oriented relaxations–i.e. progressive tightening and relaxation from the feet on up and deep breathing, imagining they are breathing in their favorite color and it is billowing and spreading throughout their body. We also do a few yoga type stretches.

I think the abuse triggers are much more likely to happen in guided visualizations, where you might meet a guide or something like that.

I hope this helps. Let me know how it goes!

Joan Stockbridge

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