I’ve been thinking lately about the etymology of ‘equinox,’ because these are the kinds of things I do late at night when I am trying to convince myself to go to sleep and yet my brain seems to come up with a million other things to do instead. Thinking about etymology is perhaps not the best strategy, because inevitably it results in becoming more awake, and in crisis situations, I end up rolling over and turning my phone on so I can look things up, and there’s that shot all to hell. Hard to go back to sleep after you’ve wound your way through the rabbithole of ‘horse.’
I’m getting distracted already. The point is, the ‘equi’ is straightforward — a prefix that sounds familiar because we use it in ‘equal’ and related words. ‘Nox,’ though, means night. This is also one that doesn’t take a lot of extrapolating to figure out — if you read Harry Potter, you know what ‘nox’ means, and you can sense it in words like, er, ‘night’ in that way we have for sounding out language. I say these things not to patronise people who haven’t thought about the word origins behind ‘equinox’ or to those who wouldn’t know what equi- and nox meant without looking, but because these are things I think about; you’re not lesser or a bad person or somehow not as worthy if you aren’t fascinated by word origins and determined to think about them all the time.
When I think about it, though, the word is a little weird. Equal night. Equal day, equal night is how we interpret it — otherwise, it’s a night equal to what? The equinox is about that moment when the day and night are at the same length as we plunge into spring or sink into fall, in preparation for the much brassier and assertive seasons of summer and winter. The green, green grass all around me will subside and fall into cracking, dry, miserable brownness, the flowers will dull, the leaves will eventually drop from the trees, the swollen creek will drop and for a few brief months there will be heat and long days and then they will shrink away into the nicest time of year, the fall, and then we will slip quietly into winter (or maybe winter will slip quietly into us).
But I love wordplay, and I imagine other things the equinox would be, too. It’s a knight/night vanquishing the day; the two are so equally matched, with such skill at swordplay and riding and jousting, that neither can best the other and both must bend their knees to the queen. It’s night measuring itself out in long spooling strings, searching for the point at which it’s equal — equal to what? It’s night wondering if any equation can turn out balanced enough. It is night searching for the square root of something.
Maybe day lies on the other side of the equation. That’s what we assure ourselves of and that’s what etymology dictionaries say — ‘equal night (and day).’ But what if we’re wrong? What if there’s something else on the other side? In that case, there’s something a little bit scary about the equinox, because it’s not about equal day and night at all. It’s about night and something else, something unknown.
We think of night, of darkness, as the unknown thing, as the thing with no fixed quantity, as the thing we do not understand. Rooms are plunged into darkness, we stumble into darkness, we are struggling in darkness — in a culture where the ability to see is a paramount trait, the idea of not being able to see because you are trapped in a dark wood wandering is deeply disturbing. It’s why we hate and fear night, why we light candles at the solstice to coax the sun back, why we plead when we are trapped in the dark, why we put nightlights in the rooms of children (to reassure them, or ourselves?).
Imagine, then, if darkness is unknowable, what is more unknowable than darkness? What lies on the other side of the scales, the seesaw, from darkness? If one end is a dark, shifting cloud with no clear beginning or end, what rests on the other? These are the things I think about when I lie in bed at night, in the darkness, on the equinox. When the sky is clear I look out to the constellations and they don’t seem to have much of an answer — they are silent because there is nothing left to say. Maybe they are dead and dark, points of darkness in their own solar systems billions of miles away, but I have not gotten the message yet. Someday they will wink out suddenly and without warning and the night sky will shift as they disappear and new stars are born and I will wonder what happens when the most stable imaginable things in our lives slip into darkness?
Maybe the other end of the scale holds that slipperiness and the unknowing, the switch of darkness — the thing that keeps the darkness at bay (day) until suddenly and without warning it cannot hold up any longer. Maybe that’s what the equinox is, the moment when two uneasy things come into balance before swinging past each other, knowing that they will meet again, and again, and again, until our own star burns out and we, too, are plunged into darkness, until someone else’s constellation shifts, until someone far, far away looks out a window and sees a constellation with a missing star and wonders why it was swallowed up by the darkness.
Maybe the equinox is a warning: Night looks equal, but it comes for us all.