A retelling of a tale by Margaret Gatty, inspired by Norse lore.
Long, long ago in the olden days, when Night and Day were young and foolish and hadn't yet discovered how much they needed each other to be happy and do well, they used to chase each other around the world in angry contempt. Each of them thought he was the only one doing anything good, and that the other one, therefore, must be doing some harm and should be gotten rid of if at all possible.
The old Norse tales say that they each rode in a horse-drawn carriage, taking turns from east to west across the sky. Night's horse Rimfaxe (Frostmane) had a frosty white mane, and Day's horse Skinfaxe (Lightmane) had a shiny golden mane. Foam fell from the bit of the frosty white horse, and it dripped onto the earth as he went, falling as dew; in winter, it congealed on plants and rocks as ice. The shiny golden horse was so radiant that it scattered light through the air with every step it took. So they drove on, taking turns bringing darkness and light over the earth as they chased each other around and around. But they didn't know one simple fact, and it was the main reason for their disagreement. What they wanted to know was this: which of them should go first? Naturally, if they were able to figure that out, then they'd know which of them was the most important. But since they kept chasing each other in a circle, it was impossible to determine which of them was first. If one was first on one side, he was last on the other side at the same time, as you can easily see if you trace their journey yourself. But this never occurred to them, and there were no teachers around back then to teach them. So, around and around the world they went, never realizing that the world was round and they were going in circles. Even if they had known they were going in circles, they didn't know that a circle has no beginning and no end. Neither of them was ever able to overtake and pass the other one, although sometimes they came pretty close. When that happened, it was twilight on the earth.
Of the two of them, one did more whining, and the other did more scolding. Can you guess which did what? Night was gloomy by nature, especially when the moon and stars were hidden behind a cloud, so she tended to grumble, fuss and complain in a depressed, pathetic tone. She was brokenhearted at the exhaustion in the world caused by too much work and active fun that happened during the light of Day. When it was her turn to receive the earth back, she treated it like a sick child she needed to nurse back to health. She felt like she had every right be resentful because of what Day had done to the world. Day, on the other hand, was chipper and cheerful, especially when the sun was shining. He never stopped to worry himself by wondering what was happening to the earth in his absence. Instead, he thought only of the fun the earth was having in his presence, and he never wanted it to end. He was frustrated when his fun was over, and he vented his anger by scolding and criticizing Night for spoiling his fun. He accused Night of putting a damper on things with her dark shadows and putting an end to happiness.
"You're cruel, Night," he cried. "You're ruining my life! You spoil everything! It's so much trouble fixing everything you've ruined. I have to drive away your mists and shadows before I can even begin making the world bright with my glorious light. And by the time I do that, I feel your chilly, damp breath trying to sneak up behind me. But you'll never overtake me--not if I can help it. I know exactly what you want--you want to cast your horrid black shadows all over my bright, pleasant world."
"What do you mean, saying you have to fix everything I ruin?" complained Night, bewildered by the accusation. "I spend all of my time trying to repair the damage of others--your damage, in fact. You consume life and strength so wastefully. Every twelve hours, I get the world back from you, and it's always half worn-out and exhausted. Then I have to restore it and make it as good as new again. But it's impossible! There are some things I can fix. I can renew and refresh some of the wear and tear, but not all of it, and then destruction and death are able to creep in."
"Listen to you!" cried Day, rudely. "As if you have a right to taunt me over damage! As if I'm guilty of causing destruction and death! I am the lifegiver. At my touch, the whole world awakens. If it wasn't for me, the world would lie asleep forever. You're more similar to the death you talk about, and you're the one who carries Death's twin sister, Sleep, in your bosom."
"You are Day, the Destroyer. I am Night, the Restorer," persisted Night, sidestepping the argument altogether.
"No, that's not right. I am Day, the Lifegiver. You are Night, the Destroyer," replied Day, bitterly.
"I am Night, the Restorer, you are Day, the Destroyer," repeated Night.
"What death is to life is what you are to me," shouted Day.
"Then death must be a restorer, too, just like me," cried Night.
And they went on like this, just like all other ignorant and stubborn people who argue, each one thinking only of their own opinion and not even listening to the other's. How can truth ever be found like that? Of course, truth can't be found in that way, so Night and Day just kept on being rude to each other. And at certain seasons they were even more ungracious than ever. For example, during the summer, Day's shiny golden horse, Lightmane, became so strong and frisky that it was difficult for Night to retain her place, Day followed her so closely. In fact, sometimes there was so little of Night to be seen that people wondered if she had passed by at all. Only those who got up early enough in the morning to see the dew that her frosty white horse Frostmane left could be sure she had been there.
Day boasted shamefully during those times! And he actually believed what he said. He truly thought it would be a great blessing if he could continue on forever, with no Night at all. Maybe his excuse is that he had heard a rumour of that actually happening once, but the main reason was because he thought too much about himself, and not enough about her. "How lucky the world is!" he would think, "Surely everyone must realize now which of us it is who brings blessings and does good for the people of the earth. The more I shorten Night's hours and lengthen my own, the more beautiful and productive the good old earth becomes. It appears to me that we can do quite well without Night's restoring process. If we could get rid of Night for good, imagine what a paradise it would be! Then the green leaves, the flowers, the fruits, and all the precious crops of my special summer season would last forever. If only it could stay like this with no interruption!"
"He's wishing for something that would be a curse," lamented Night; "if his wish came true, no life could even exist!" And her frosty white horse dropped dewy tears as she said this. But no one heard her. Yet her dew was very welcome, because the weather was quite hot.
And in her time, Night had her revenge. When it was summer on one side of the globe, it was winter on the other side, and then it was her turn to boast. It was in the winter that her frosty white horse came out in all his glory. Sometimes he ran so fast that his carriage was almost side by side with Day's, and squeezed him in, covering his light. And then Night murmured triumphantly: "Good! This is very good! Finally there can be a real rest at last! Now worn-out Nature can repair herself and regain her strength! Weary muscles can get stronger instead of wearing themselves out, strained eyes can have a rest, and tired brains can get back some energy. Now Nature's secret forces of healing are at work, and exhaustion is being mended everywhere. Shrubs, trees, and flowers, and all the other plants, are able to keep their gases for themselves, and earth can keep her energy. Waste and damage have stopped, because the wear and tear of life is resting. If only it could rest forever! Then the whole world would be renewed. Perhaps strong, giant super races of humans and animals and plants and fungi could arise!"
"But they could never thrive from the sparkle of active life. They couldn't even be seen, except by the pale, faint light of the moon," sneered Day, who was actually horrified at the idea. But he wasn't able to make himself heard. At the moment, he was in the background, and nobody cared to listen to him. But he still managed to make his presence known a little at midday by the light of his shiny golden horse's hair. No force on earth could quite put that out, not even in the winter. During nice days, the sparkles of Lightmane shone over the frost and snow so brightly that they glittered like diamonds and might have been mistaken for fireworks.
And things went on this way until something happened that made them both pause. It started in a very odd way. It's hard to tell exactly what it is that makes you change your own mind, and even harder to know what changes someone else's mind. So I won't even pretend to describe the process in their case. But Night and Day did become wiser as time went on. After all, as everyone knows, they aren't squabbling and boasting today. On the contrary, they glide after each other gently and smoothly. Their horses don't kick, and their carriage wheels don't rumble or squeak. What probably happened is that, after their worst anger had subsided, they were able to look around and size up what each other did more objectively. And when they did that, they discovered that there were two places on the globe where they each had their own way for six whole months at a time. Those two places were the Arctic and the Antarctic. But all the wonderful benefits they said would happen if they had full reign never happened. In fact, the polar ice caps were and are the most bleak and forsaken places on the whole globe. They were nothing but an empty wilderness of ice and rock with hardly any animals or plants able to survive. It was upsetting to see. The shiny golden horse of Day rode around and around that frozen horizon with a steady, uninterrupted light, but where was the paradise that should have been the result? Where were the green leaves, the flowers, the fruits, and the precious crops that should have thrived in this everlasting influence of Day? A dove wouldn't have been able to find even a shrub to rest on. Not even a wandering seagull disturbed the deathly stillness in the air. Day, the lifegiver, looked down on a kingdom that had no life. No wonder he started to doubt himself! No wonder he started to suspect that there might be some truth in what Night had said after all. Maybe in some way Night really was the Restorer. Maybe in some mysterious way he couldn't explain, Night was necessary to his own success.
And it was the same way with Night when it was her turn to have complete reign. Her frosty white horse dropped his refreshing dew, but it had no effect. Dew seemed to be useful everywhere else, but not here. She finally had the opportunity to provide uninterrupted rest to repair and refresh Nature. Now she could let her secret powers do their work as they pleased. There was no labour or heat to cause damage or waste, and nothing to cause destruction. So then, where were the strong, giant super races of humans and animals and plants and fungi that should have resulted? The wear and tear of life had stopped, but how had the earth benefitted? Night, the Restorer, finally had a chance to rule, but she ruled over a kingdom with nothing to restore. No wonder tears were mingled with the dew she dropped on the earth. She even called on the morning stars to bring Day back. Once she had dreaded Day and considered him her opponent, but now she longed for him as a friend. He had called himself Day the Lifegiver. Well, maybe he really was the lifegiver. At any rate, she seemed unable to accomplish anything without him. Wherever he was absent, the whole world was barren and empty.
It was obvious that they had made a terrible mistake. But maybe it's understandable that they didn't initially recognize that there need to be other influences than theirs alone to make the earth what it is in most places. People don't get wise all at once, and at least Night and Day were off to a good start by learning to doubt themselves. That's always the first step in being fair to others.
"Oh, Day, my bright, beautiful friend, I called you a destroyer!" moaned Night, in her gentlest tones. "Yet you're the one who brings light over my shadows, and makes my good deeds known to humankind. Lifegiving Day, forgive me! Please come back at your scheduled seasons. Please touch the earth with your glorious light at the right times. Otherwise, everything in the whole world will die, and I'll be forgotten along with it."
"And I mistakenly thought your gentle shadow was death," answered Day, smiling sweetly, although tears filled his eyes as he thought of how unfair he had been in misjudging Night. Smiling through his tears made a huge rainbow shine over the earth below. "I was even more unfair than you were! In your silence and rest, the very basics of life are renewed. An everlasting day with no night would destroy the earth. Dear friend, please forgive me, and return regularly."
"There is nothing to forgive," whispered Night, as she came around again. "And perhaps death restores and heals in the same way I do," she added tenderly. The harvest moon was shining over large fields of golden corn, and as she looked down at the waving stalks, and at the sheaves already gathered, she felt especially hopeful about everything.
"Anyway, we're friends," sang Day, "loving, helpful friends."
"Yes, friends. Comforting and eternal friends," echoed Night in return, as the tired world rested within her arms. Earth's eyes closed, its arms and legs relaxed, its flowers closed up, as if the soothing Angel of Rest had come down from the heavens.
And they were friends, and will always be friends, even though long ages have passed since this story, even though the old gods of yore are regarded as nothing but fiction in our days, and even though it's fashionable for scholars to say that Day and Night don't really ride around in horse-drawn carriages. Well, maybe the scholars are right. Maybe it's true that the earth is a ball hanging in space, orbiting slowly around the sun, but spinning at the same time on its own axis so that different sides take turns facing away from or towards the sun, and that's what makes Day and Night. Perhaps the scientific explanation is correct. It's not important; no matter what process makes it Day and Night, they have a voice and they tell us things worth listening to, especially now that they're no longer young and foolish. If we keep our ears open, we may sometimes hear little snatches of their melody breaking out when the wind blows through reeds and tree branches, making a sound like an aeolian harp. Just listen, and you might hear it. And you'll be able to guess which of them is speaking, because they praise each other instead of boasting and accusing each other. One of them sings,
"Dear Night, once I dreaded you, thinking you were the dark and dull end of life and fun. Dear Night, now I realize that you're what renews life. Welcome, blessed healer. Take our worn out earth into your arms. Put your soothing, restful cloak over earth's struggles and toils. Earth's workers labour all day, and their strength is used up as they exert their arms and muscles, and strain their eyes and minds, and work to build things and make changes in the ever-changing world. Restore what you can, and what you are allowed. Whatever can't be restored should be content to continue to hope, because the merciful rest that you bring now foretells a greater rest still to come. You, Night, are like the mighty change that will some day come to everything. You are like the deep, mysterious rest that will someday renew all things. You are like the necessary, hopeful death that stimulates everyone to life! Dear Night, you are my sister and my friend. Your twilight shadow is approaching, and I can see your darkness beyond it, in gracious, blessed peace."
And the other answers in return,
"My mission is dark and secret. Mortals say that I'm gloomy, but in my arms, I hold the tiny spark of a glorious hope. It works within, where it can't be seen, until you, Day, the Restorer, return to break through my mists and shadows and touch those I heal with your light. In the same way, at the beginning of creation, the first light of the young new dawn brought gleams of life all over the world. Nature was amazed, and she awakened with songs of joy and thanksgiving.
"So, return, Day, beloved Lifegiver, and continue to revive the sleeping sparks that I nourish. I can feel their life hidden with me. I welcome you because of this, but I welcome you even more because you're like the eternal Dayspring that will finally dawn when sin and sadness and death are over. Then, our secret missions will be accomplished. Our secret work will be completed. Then both you and I, Lifegiving Day, will join our blessings together in one. Then the light that never damages and wears people out, and the life that never tires people out, will be united as one with eternal rest that stays forever!"