The Magic Ball

Adapted by Joan Stockbridge.
The Magic Ball is adapted from a story from the Chubut Province in southern Argentina. This version is meant to focus on the addiction and recovery themes useful in recovery settings.

Once there was a dreadful witch who lived on a mountaintop where the winds howled and the snow blew. She loved cold and frost and hated all living things. No matter how much she had to eat, she was always hungry, and her favorite meal was the human heart.

The people of that land were terrified of the witch because their children kept disappearing. No one knew why, but they thought it had to do with the witch. And they were right.

You see the witch had a ball that glimmered and glistened and looked prettier than any of the ordinary things in that land. When the witch saw children wandering from their homes, she’d secretly leave the ball somewhere the children would see it. Children who saw the ball were filled with desire. They wanted to touch it and hold it, but as soon as they got close, the ball would drift away like a soap bubble. The ball was magic. Whoever chased it would lose all sense of time. They would forget everyone and everything they loved. They would feel no hunger or cold. Nothing would matter except getting that ball.

That was just what happened one day to a a brother and sister, who had gone to check on the goats. As Sister trudged up the mountain, she saw something shining beneath a berry bush. “OHHH,” she said, drawing near to the ball. Everything else left her mind. She forgot about the goats. She forgot about her brother. All that mattered was the ball, the beautiful, shimmering ball. Soon she was chasing it as it drifted across the steppes. Every time Sister got close, the ball drifted a little further off.

Fortunately Brother looked up and saw Sister. “Where are you going?” he shouted, but she couldn’t hear. Her ears were filled with the song the ball was singing. Brother took off after Sister. He followed her day and night. He never gave up, though she didn’t hear him, didn’t see him. She didn’t know he was there.

Finally, the ball came to a stop on the witch’s mountain. “Ahh,” Sister said, stretching out her arms and picking up the ball. Pop. The ball burst like a bubble. All at once the world came crashing in on Sister. “Where am I?” she said, wrapping her skinny arms around herself. “I’m cold.” She began to cry.

Brother rushed up. “I’ve been chasing you for days,” he said.

“What happened?” Sister sobbed.

“You were chasing the witch’s ball,” Brother said. “You forgot everything else. You didn’t even hear me when I called.”

“I’m so sorry,” sister said.

“We have to get you out of the cold” Brother said.

He found a tiny cave, out of the wind, and let Sister crawl in. “After you rest, we’ll find our way home.” Brother sat outside the cave. He knew it would be dangerous to sleep. He knew he should keep watch, but he was tired. At first he propped his eyes open with his fingers, but he couldn’t stay awake. He fell into an exhausted sleep.

Inside the cave, Sister was dreaming she was at home next to a warm fire. Her mother was singing as she brushed her hair. Sister felt the brush sliding through her long, silky hair. But, the brush was getting tangled. “Ouch,” Sister said, waking up. She tried to shake her head, but she couldn’t.

While Sister slept, the witch had bound her hair into the mountain, woven it tight into the rock. “Brother!” she cried.

Brother leapt up. He raced for Sister, but couldn’t get through. The witch had placed an invisible wall between them. Brother threw himself against the barrier, but he was driven back. He tried to climb up, but he could find no way over. He tried to find his way around the sides, but he could find no end. He sank down and looked at Sister, pinned into the mountain, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Just then, a soft whooing sound Overhead he saw the snowy wings of an owl, the witch’s pet. “Soon we will have them,” the owl hooted. “They will freeze to death.”

“So long as they do not find fire,” the witch whispered from a snowy ledge, her beaked nose sharp in the moonlight. And then the pair disappeared.

“Brother,” Sister called, sharply. “Did you hear what the witch said?” ” We have to get fire!”

“How?” Brother despaired.

“You must leave me and go down onto the plain.”

“I can’t leave you!”

“You must,” Sister said. “Otherwise there’s no hope.”

So Brother stumbled to his feet and set off as fast as his legs could carry him. He was tired, but the thought of Sister’s eyes gave him strength. He had only walked a few minutes when a strong condor flew overhead. The bird seemed to beckon him on. “It’s a sign,” he thought, and followed the bird.

The bird led him to a stone cottage. Brother knocked, but there was no answer. He called, but there was no response. In that empty country, it was the custom for travelers to respectfully enter a home in time of need, so Brother went in. He built up the fire, swept the floor, brought in fresh wood and water. When he put a load of logs down next to the fireplace, he was surprised to see an old man sitting in a chair.

“I know why you’re here,” the old man said. “You need fire to rescue your sister from the witch.”

“How did you know?” Brother asked.

“I know the witch’s ways,” the old man said. “Hurry. There’s not much time before she freezes to death.”

The old man whistled and a large flamingo with long legs and a long beak entered the house. The old man stuck a stick into the fire, lit it, and handed it to the bird.

“Fly, my beauty,” the old man said, “and make haste, for a human life is at stake.” The bird flew away, and Brother raced after.

Together the two hurried back across the dark plains. As the bird flew, the stick burned. It burned faster and faster, as the flames came closer and closer to the bird’s beak. Still the flamingo held on, flying as fast as he had ever flown; though the heat was searing his feathers and charring his beak. At last they arrived at the witch’s mountain. Brother dropped to his knees and frantically scratched through the snow, until he gathered a small pile of grasses and sticks. The flamingo opened his beak and dropped the fiery stick onto the pile. The tinder caught fire.

Brother tended the small fire carefully, blowing on the tiny flames, feeding them with dried twigs. The fire blazed high. until there was a huge explosion. The witch’s mountain blew apart and the spell was broken. The icy witch’s power was gone. She was nothing any longer.

Sister rushed into Brother’s arms. “Thank you. Thank you.” Sister turned to the flamingo. Its feathers were glowing from the heat of the fire. To this day the flamingo is rosy pink.

“Thank you for your sacrifice. and your courage.” She placed her cold hands on the bird’s singed breast, and the fiery heat drained away.

And so it was that Sister, with the help of Brother, the old man and the flamingo, broke the witch’s spell. After she and Brother rested, they found their way home. They told the villagers that the witch would never again lure children away. In time, Brother and Sister both married, built homes next to each other, and had many children. They lived long and well, and were loved by all, for they had driven the witch and her magic ball out of the land.

Note About the Story

The Magic Ball is adapted from a story from the Chubut Province in southern Argentina. It can be found in Tales from Silver Lands, collected by Charles Finger and published by Doubleday, 1924. I encourage interested tellers to read the full version. Charles Finger’s rich language and beautiful imagery add immensely to the pleasure of the story. I adapted the story quite a bit, leaving out two bird helpers who try to bring fire but fail. I also invented the dialogue and nomenclature. This version is meant to focus on the addiction and recovery themes useful in recovery settings.

Using Traditional Stories in Groups

I meet weekly with women in two residential substance abuse recovery programs. Most of the women are in the program by court order, and they also have open CPS (Child Protective Service) cases. There are six women in each home, and we meet for a two-hour session. The women remain in the program for 3-6 months, after which they usually go into a transitional program.

The story sessions usually follow a regular pattern. First we check in. I ask each woman what has happened since I saw her last. Check in can take up to a half hour. It is very important time since it establishes trust and demonstrates sincere concern for each individual. It also lets the group know how everyone is doing that morning, and lays a foundation for our work.

After check in, I announce the topic of the session. Typical topics include understanding and processing shame; claiming our highest and best selves; recognizing and managing anger; developing healthy relationships; understanding our feelings; developing resilience and determination; forgiving ourselves and others; understanding and working with our fears etc. The topic of the Magic Ball session is recognizing patterns of addiction and stages of recovery.

Then I tell the story. This is often the women’s favorite part of the session. While immersed in the story, they have a respite from the concerns and preoccupations of their daily lives. They feel nurtured and cared for. They breathe easily, often in unison. The story time is a time of peace and relaxation and hope. Since I have a storytelling background, I feel comfortable with extended stories and often tell stories that last between 20-30 minutes. However, I strongly believe that advanced storytelling skills are not necessary for telling stories effectively in therapeutic settings! I’ve recently done workshops for social workers, mental health professionals, hospice caregivers, adoption specialists, and eldercare workers and have found that with some training and encouragement, most people can use story as a powerful catalyst for group work.

Following the story, we often take a short break, letting the story “breathe” silently within. When we come back from break, we launch into discussion and activity that explicitly encourages the group members to make personal connections to the story. I might open by saying something like, “Can you see yourself in that story?” or “What did that story say to you?” or “Does that story apply to you in any way?” or “Why do you think I chose that story for group today?”

After some general discussion, I lead the group very clearly to the theme I’ve chosen for the day. With the Magic Ball, I focus on the patterns of addiction and recovery suggested in the story. I elicit from the group the moments in the story that remind them of stages of addiction and recovery and write them on a whiteboard: first sight of the ball; chasing the ball heedless of everything else; “waking up” when the ball pops; being trapped in the cave; being cut off from loved ones; seeing that one’s survival is at stake; receiving help; breaking free; returning home. With each step we talk about their own personal stories of similar stages in their own lives.

After that, we turn to Brother. After some discussion about loved ones who have been supportive (and acknowledging the sadness of the women who lack such external support systems) I remind them again that everyone and everything in a folk and fairy tale can be seen as some part of ourselves. We talk about our “inner brothers,” the part of ourselves that is strong and determined and seeks health. I ask them to get in pairs and share a story of a time in their life when they helped someone they cared about. Then we get back in the large circle, and I ask each one to tell the story that they just heard from their partner. The women are thrilled to hear their own positive stories voiced by someone else; it somehow seems to give extra validation to the experience.

Over and over again, I’ve found that it is vital for the sessions to build positive momentum. I don’t use cautionary tales in therapeutic settings, as I’ve found that people in such settings are often already burdened with shame, grief, guilt, and other negative emotions, and that stories that honestly offer hope are far more valuable. If group members can deeply identify with the protagonist’s struggles and suffering, they will also be able to honestly and deeply identify with the protagonist’s ultimate redemption. In this way, stories truly offer hope. In my last session, a group member said, “I love story days. I can see myself in the story. It’s me in the cave. It’s me building the fire. On story days I feel better about myself, and I have more hope than on regular days.”

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