This is a traditional story from Ethiopia, and a beautiful example of emotional courage
. I have heard it told various ways – in one, the woman must reconnect with her husband, from whom she has become estranged; in another, the woman must find connection with a stepson, in another, with her new mother-in-law. The variation in these details shows that we can alter stories to suit our audience and our own unspoken needs. Parents can read it a few times, let the story sink in and live inside for a while before sharing it, and then try telling it to their own children, making any change in detail they want. But they shouldn’t read it aloud! They should just tell it in their own words. No discussion is required afterward, but if a child begins to talk about the story, a parent can just follow her lead and see where it takes them. Also, here
is a good retelling you might be able to find at your public library.
A long time ago, a woman in a certain village adopted a boy whose parents had died of a disease. She had no children herself, and she wanted this boy to love her. He was not ready to love her, however, as his heart was still grieving for the parents he had lost. This woman loved him very much already, but she was sad that he would hardly look at her when she gave him his food. She thought she would ask advice from the wise healer in the next village, and see if there was some magic that could make the child love her.
“There is a special drink which I can make for you to give the boy,” said the healer. “When the child drinks it he will love you as his mother.”
“Please make this for me,” the woman begged.
The healer raised one finger. “It is difficult to make. It requires the whisker of a living lion.”
The woman felt her heart pound in her chest. What a fearful task! “I will get this whisker,” she whispered.
The next afternoon, she took some meat to a pond where lion tracks had been seen. She put the meat by the water and hid behind a tree to wait. Sure enough, at dusk a lion came. She knew by the way he sniffed the air that he knew she was there, but he was satisfied with the meat and did not bother her.
The next evening she did the same thing. The lion sniffed the air, but did not approach her, for he was satisfied with her offering. The next evening, she did the same thing but did not hide behind the tree. She crouched on the path where he could see her. She was very frightened when the lion looked at her, but she did not run away. Every day she did this, and every day she waited a little bit closer to where the lion ate. At last, after two months of this, she was placing the meat in front of the lion and waiting just a few feet away. The lion would eat the meat quickly, his great teeth gleaming in the sunset light, but the woman thought of the boy and she did not run away.
After three months there came a night when the woman placed the meat on the ground and did not move. The lion approached the meat, and sniffed her before eating. As he lowered his head to the meat, the woman reached out, and plucked one whisker from his cheek.
The next morning, the woman hurried to the next village to give the wise healer the lion’s whisker. The healer looked with astonishment at the whisker, and then smiled. “You now have everything you need to win the boy’s love.”
“The drink? You will make the drink?” the woman asked.
But the healer put a gentle hand on the woman’s arm. “You do not need any magic drink. You have learned how to win the boy’s love, with patience, and with courage, and with a small step every day, and with not running away.”
And when the woman went home she found that she could think of the boy as a lion, and approach him with the same patience and the same respect. And eventually, this boy loved her as his own mother.
Again, parents should resist the temptation to press for a discussion. “Did you like the story?” or “What do you think the story means?” are not questions a child wants to hear while he is processing a story and savoring the images it has offered to his imagination. If they can be like the woman in the story, patiently offering and patiently waiting, then a prize of great worth will eventually come.
You may also purchase Nancy Raines Day’s retelling, with beautiful collage illustrations by Ann Grifalconi here: