Stefan Zweig: "The Legend of the Third Dove"

By Stefan Zweig (1881–1942)

Translated from German by Selina Wyssusek


[This translation was first published in print in issue 2 of sugarcane in October 2018, which was made possible by the generous financial support of The Alumni Friends of the University of Queensland.]


Born to a Jewish family in Vienna, Stefan Zweig was an extremely popular writer in his lifetime. A journalist, biographer, and novelist, Zweig fled the Nazis for Brazil in 1940. Despairing at the fate of Europe and her culture, he and his wife committed suicide in the same year. In this short story, written during WWI in 1916, Zweig elaborates the story of the dove sent out by Noah narrated in Genesis. The dove, which never returned to Noah, dreams peacefully until she is disturbed by a conflagration as terrible as the Flood: war.

The book of the beginning of time tells the story of the first dove, and the second, sent out from the Ark by Noah when the floodgates of heaven closed and the waters of the deep had dried up. Yet who will tell of the journey and the fate of the third dove? The saving ship was stranded on the peak of Mount Ararat, carrying in its lap all lives spared by the flood, and when Noah’s gaze from the mast saw only swells and waves and never-ending stretches of water, he sent out a dove, the first, to bring him news of whether any land could be found under the now cloudless sky.


The first dove, so it is told, raised herself and spread her wings. She flew eastward and westward, but still there was water all around. Nowhere could she find a resting place, and gradually her wings began to tire. Thus she returned to the only firm ground in the world, to the Ark, and fluttered around the reposing ship on the mountaintop until Noah held out his hand and took her home.


For seven days he now waited, seven days in which no rain fell and the waters receded, then took again a dove, the second, and sent her out for news. The dove flew out in the morning, and when she returned at vespertide she carried an olive leaf in her beak as the first sign of the liberated earth. Thus, Noah understood that the canopies of the trees had risen up above the water and the trial was finally over.


After another seven days he once again sent out a dove, the third, for news, and she flew out into the world. She flew out in the morning but did not return by evening. Day after day Noah waited, yet she did not come home. Then Noah knew that the earth was free and the waters subsided. But of the dove, the third, he never heard again, nor did mankind, and never was her tale told until our time.


This was the journey and fate of the third dove. In the morning she had flown out from the belly of the ship, in which the crowded animals in the dark stirred impatiently and there was a thronging of hooves and claws, a wild cacophony of roaring and piping and hissing and barking; she had flown out from confinement into endless vastness, from darkness into the light. As she raised her wings in the clear rain-sweetened air, all at once freedom surged around her and the grace of the infinite. From the depths the waters shimmered, the forests glowed green like damp moss, from the meadows pale fog rose into the morning, and the fields were sweet with the perfume of ripening plants. Light fell gleaming from the metallic skies, the rising sun broke into endless dawn on the peaks of the mountains and made the sea glisten like red blood, made the blossoming earth steam like hot blood. To behold this awakening was glorious, and the dove soared blissfully over the crimson world, soared over land and sea and in her dreams became herself a soaring dream. Like God Himself she was the first to see the liberated earth, and her view was endless. She had long forgotten white-bearded Noah of the Ark and his errand, long forgotten any thought of return. For the world had become her home and the sky her only abode.


Thus the third dove, the unfaithful messenger, flew over the empty earth, further, ever further, carried by the storms of her joy, by the winds of her restlessness, further and further until her wings became heavy and her feathers like lead. The earth pulled her down with mighty force, ever lower her feeble wings drooped, so that they brushed the damp crowns of the trees, and in the evening of the second day she finally let herself sink into the depths of a forest which was yet nameless as all things were in the beginning of time. She sheltered in a thicket of branches and rested after her lofty voyage. Twigs covered her, the wind lulled her to sleep, her forest home was cool in the day and warm in the night. Before long she forgot the windy skies and the lure of distant places, the verdant canopy closed her in, and time grew over her unmeasured.


It was a forest in our near world that the dove chose for her home, but no people yet lived there, and in such solitude she slowly became but a dream. In the dark, in the green of night she nested and the years passed her by and Death forgot her, for the animals, one of each sex, who had seen the first world before the flood could not die, and no hunter could hurt them. They hid invisible in the unexplored folds of the earth, and so did the dove in the deep of the forest. Sometimes she sensed the presence of men, a shot rang out and echoed a hundred times from the green walls, woodcutters beat against the tree trunks so that the darkness roared, the quiet laughter of lovers wandering entwined hummed furtively among the branches, and the singing of children searching for berries sounded softly and distantly. The sunken dove, wrapped in leaves and dreams, sometimes heard these voices of the world, but she listened without fear and stayed in her darkness.


But one day the whole forest began to roar, and there was thunder, as if the earth were breaking in two. Black metal masses tore screeching through the air, and wherever they fell the earth leapt up aghast, and the trees broke like twigs. Men in colourful costumes hurled death at one another, and terrible machines pitched fire and flame. Bolts of lightning dashed into the clouds and thunder followed; it was as if the earth were colliding with the heavens and the heavens were collapsing on the earth. The dove started up out of her dream. Death was above her, and destruction; just as water once had done, fire now swept over the world. Swiftly she spread her wings and rose up to find a new home far from the crashing forest: a haven of peace. She took flight and sailed over our world, searching for peace, but everywhere there was lightning, the thundering of machines, everywhere there was war. An ocean of fire and blood washed over the world, the great flood had come again, and hurriedly she fluttered over our lands in search of a place to rest and then to return to Noah and bring him the promised olive leaf. But it was nowhere to be found in those days, and the flood of corruption rose ever higher over humanity, the blaze burned ever further through our world. She has not yet found rest, nor has man found peace, and so she cannot return, cannot rest for all eternity.


No one has seen her in our days, that lost mythical dove, the peace-searcher, and yet she flutters over our heads, frightened and exhausted. Sometimes of a night, when you awake in fright from uneasy sleep, you can hear a rustling up in the air, a hasty chasing in the darkness, troubled flapping and helpless flight. Our darkest thoughts are resting on her wings, and our desires are woven through her fear, as she hovers, shivering between heaven and earth, the lost dove, now pronouncing our own fate, the unfaithful messenger of the father of man. And as it was a thousand years ago, so today the world waits for a hand to reach out and understand that the trial is finally over.

About the author: Selina Wyssusek lives in Berlin.

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sugarcane 2020. ISSN 2208-3952.