“Now that all the elements had finished their demonstrations, the Sun went out over the land to view their work. And when the people saw the Sun, they rejoiced. Their songs of praise filled the air, they swam and played in the lakes and rivers, they reaped the fields of the earth, built bonfires for their feasts. All hail the sun, giver of life!, the people cried.”
“On the third night, the earth took a different approach. Instead of causing another disaster, the earth produced a bounty of its rich resources — food, fuel, and shelter. See how my riches allow humanity to survive the worst that the other elements may bring, boasted the earth.
“Fire, on the fourth night, took yet another strategy. Rather than spreading itself in wild contagions, fire decided that it’s absence would make a far greater threat to humanity. So fire for one night removed itself from the land, leaving humanity cold and afraid. See how humanity calls out to me in their need, boasted fire.
“The air was given the first night, for a reason which has unfortunately been lost to antiquity,” my mother explained, in an obvious attempt to suppress my question. “And on that first night, tornados tore through the land, uprooting homes and sending humanity scurrying for cover. See how I have obliterated all of man’s achievements! the air boasted at the end of that first night.”
“Water went next, but its plan to flood the land on that second night was thwarted by the air, which did not permit rain to fall, and the earth, which fortified its river banks and sea shores. You cannot allow this interference!, so water complained to the Sun, yet the Sun replied — yes, dear, the Sun could still talk even though it was sleeping — that no rules had been made against such actions. May I assume, then, that alliances are permitted as well? asked water, and when the Sun said yes, water and fire made a pact not to interfere with each other’s plans. Water then removed heat from the land, causing fearsome ice to form on humanity’s roads, crops to spoil, livestock to die. See how I have taken away humanity’s ability to survive, boasted the water at the end of that second night.”
I interrupted my mother at that point in her story. I told her that, even though I was just a kid, I knew enough about science to know that the sun was a star, and Earth a planet, and like all planets the Earth rotated around the sun, which meant the sun never really went to sleep like she said in her story. I then asked if the Sun was so smart then why did it need to stage a silly competition in order to figure out which element was the strongest, and by the way, what did any of this have to do with winter?
My mother closed her eyes a moment, then reopened them slowly and spoke softly. “You’ve asked me three questions. I am glad for your first, for it shows that you do not completely trust storytellers — no, the sun does not sleep, my little scientist. But when I finish this tale, you may learn that there are truths in stories that cannot be expressed by science. Your second question demonstrates your impatience, for it will be clear by story’s end why the Sun’s competition is necessary. And your third question — ‘what does any of this have to do with winter?’ — speaks to your lack of faith.”
I reminded my mother that she had praised me for not trusting storytellers before so why was she questioning my lack of faith now. She frowned, and said “Johnny Carson’s on in ten minutes, kid. You wanna hear the rest of this story, or not?” She tossled my head, which made me laugh, and she continued.
Resuming her normal tone, my mother continued, “The argument among the elements was felt throughout creation — wind stirred up the oceans, fire swept through the lands and clouded the air, rivers overflowed their banks. Humanity, driven to desperation by the devastation, cried out to the Sun for deliverance, and the Sun showed mercy on humanity and spoke to each of the elements. ‘If you will agree to cease your hostilities,’ the Sun decreed, ‘I will agree to judge a competition between you. If you will accept my decision as final, I shall determine which of you elements is the mightiest.’ The elements agreed that the Sun, whose light shines equally on all, would be the best to judge such a contest, which the Sun set down as this: on each of the next four nights, while the sun slept, one element would be allowed to show its power. After the fourth night, the Sun would determine which element had shown the most power.”
One bitterly cold February evening when I was child, I asked my mother as she was putting me to bed why winter was so harsh. She smiled, tucked the thick blankets under my chin (we turned the thermostat down low in the evening to save money), and asked, “Would you like to hear a story my uncle told me many years ago, when I was a child, a story of how winter began?” Yes, I said.
“Do you know the four elements?” she asked, and I replied that I did — earth, air, water, and fire.
“Which of these are the most powerful?” she asked me. I told her I was not sure, and she smiled. “Well, if you were to ask the elements which was the most powerful, you would get the same reply from each — It is I, of course,” my mother said, lowering her tone and lifting her hand in imitation of the elemental voices.