The sídhe (pronounced, “shee”) are a powerful and nearly human-looking fairy folk (often distinguished from the flying, cute and/or friendly varieties by spelling it faerie). They are primarily distinguished by their unusually long, slender fingers and their sharply pointed ears.
~ ~ ~
Two women of the sídhe were walking a road that ran along the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, when they came upon a human baby, crying in the middle of the path.
Looking all about them and seeing no one, the fairies quickly wrapped it up in the shawl of one, and, taking the child with them, they hurried along faster than they had come.
At the same time, a pair of fishermen were heading home for the day, and one spotted something white on the side of the nearly sheer cliff.
His companion tried to pretend he thought it was a bird, but the first man insisted on navigating the rocks and climbing up. He rightly suspected it was some traveler who had become lost in the mist and tumbled over the edge.
It was a young woman, hurt but alive, and they brought her home, handing her off to the fisherwives to be tended.
When the girl came to her senses she immediately began to cry for her baby, and the men were sent back out to look for him. But neither up nor down the road, nor in any of the nearest villages could they hear any news of a found bairn.
When the young woman regained her strength she said goodbye to the kind fisherfolk, promising to return when she had found her child.
After much fruitless wandering, the young mother happened upon a gypsy camp where an old grandmother divined in the fire that the baby was taken by the sídhe, and advised the girl to give up her quest.
When she refused, the gypsy mother gave her some advice.
“The sídhe, for all their magical arts, have no power to create anything for themselves.
“Whatever they want they must either buy or steal. If you can offer something rich, rare, and beyond compare, that may buy your child back from the sídhe.”
How a poor girl all alone in the world was to obtain such a treasure, the old mother would not say. But before departing she blessed the young woman,
Promising her protection from fire and earth, from air and water.
The young woman thought on all the wondrous stories she’d ever heard until she settled on ideas for two different wonders to offer. One to pay her way into the secret world of the sídhe, and one to buy her baby out of it.
Making her way back to the coast where there were many birds, the young mother climbed the slippery rocks to their nests, collecting the down from around their eggs.
She gathered until it seemed she carried clouds in her arms.
And the sun did not burn her fair skin as she worked the long days. The sharp stones did not cut her hands or bare feet. The winds did not blow her off the mountain, and the thundering waves did not dash her to pieces.
As the old mother’s blessing had promised she was protected: from fire and earth, from air and water.
These feathers the young woman wove into a magnificent cloak. She then cut off all her long golden hair, and laying a few strands aside she wove the rest into an intricate border of gold.
She next searched the shore until she found the bone of some sea creature, long dead, that had been washed and polished by the ocean until it shone like purest ivory. This she bent into the body of a harp, and strung it with her own hair.
And the sound it made as she struck a tune was so beautifully full of love and loss and longing, that even the birds were still on the air to listen to it.
With these treasures carefully in her possession, she made her way to the meeting place of the sídhe.
After many of the folk had passed in a company, there came, as she had hoped, one hurrying alone as though late.
And summoning all her courage, the young woman stepped full into view wearing the cloak, swirling it about like moonlight over water.
It took no time at all to persuade the covetous sídhe to bring her inside the magical mound. As soon as they were in the throne room, the young mother left the proud sídhe displaying his new treasure to his envious peers, and purposefully approached the king.
She held the harp, and when the sídhe would have seized her, she played. And the king so desired the harp that he offered her the choice of any treasure he possessed.
The king made a gesture and attendants piled emeralds at her feet.
She refused. “Bring me my child,” she said, striking a cord.
Again the king gestured, and the gems piled up to the young mother’s waist, but she never looked down, and continued to play.
The sounds of loss and love were too strong for the king to resist, and he sent for the child.
When he saw his mother, the baby reached for her, and she handed the king the instrument as she received her son.
Then, with the king and his whole court enmeshed in the magical music, the mother and her child walked unmolested from the world of the sídhe, and returned to her friends in the fishing village, as she had promised.
~ ~ ~
My oldest baby was six-months old when I first performed this story. You can imagine it had great resonance with me.
I first found it in the excellent collection, Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters, compiled by Kathleen Ragan.
The quotes are from the way I tell it.