Conversation of the Three Wayfarers by Peter Weiss
Translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop
They were men who did nothing but walk walk walk. They were big, they were bearded, they wore leather caps and long raincoats, they called themselves Abel, Babel and Cabel, and while they walked they talked to each other. They walked and looked around and saw what there was to see, and they talked about it and about other things that had happened. When one was talking the two others kept still and listened or looked around and listened to something else, and when one of them had finished saying what he had to say, the second one spoke up, and then the third, and the others listened or thought about something else. They had stout boots for walking, but they carried only as much with them as would fit into the pockets of their clothes, as much as they could quickly lay their hands on and put away again. Since they looked alike they were taken for brothers by passersby, but they were not brothers at all, they were only men who walked walked walked, having met each other by chance, Abel and Babel, and then Abel, Babel and Cabel. Abel and Babel had met each other on the bridge, Babel, who had been coming toward Abel, turned round and joined company with Abel, and Cabel ran into them in the park and since then they walked walked walked everywhere together.
I believe this bridge is a new one, I have never seen it before, it must have been built overnight, a difficult job requiring long preparation and a great expenditure of effort. Pontoons were towed in and barges with planks, the pontoons were anchored, the planks set in place and lagged fast, after careful calculations and with the help of a selected workforce. Master-builder, engineers, workmen, members of the city administration knew months ahead about the bridge, when people were still calling to each other from the open banks. At that time rowboats traveled back and forth through the rapids, also a flat open ferry. Have often crossed on the ferry, the trip an interval of standing still and despite that of moving forward, on the blue water, under clouds and seagulls. The ferry engine puffed, vibrations came up through the deck into the soles of your shoes, up your legs, into the body, as in regular quick walking. The ferryman’s face was covered with shining white stubble, his skin was darkly tanned and covered with lines and furrows. He lived in a shack over there on the bank, near the pile to which the ferry lay tied up. During the crossings I talked with him, his words were unclear because he always had a pipe held between his teeth, a short sturdy pipe wound with wire and insulating tape. In our most recent conversation he seemed not to have known about the projected bridge. If I understood him correctly he foresaw a long future for himself on his pounding, wave-cleaving ferry, in the blue air, in wind and in rain, and many planks had gone into putting the ferry together, and many nights in his shack, with the view through the window of the pile with the tautly stretched hawser. It is possible that he had built the ferry himself in his early years, not alone, but with the help of other boatbuilders, perhaps he was only a helper, in any case he knew how many planks had gone into putting the ferry together, and how many ribs and bolts had been needed for its completion. It had often been repaired and tarred since then, nonetheless water steadily leaked in, every morning he had to pump out. When the tower clock on the castle struck out another full hour he traveled from the bank where his shack lay across to the other bank, no matter whether any ferry passengers had come aboard or not, or whether any passengers were waiting on the other side. He came back the same way from the other bank and if people came running from afar he did not wait and the people over there could shout and whistle as much as they liked, he came back only when the hour had run out again.
The bridge has existed for a long time. I was riding one time in a black lacquered, redly upholstered coach over the bridge and next to me sat my bride and vomited on her white dress because the bridge swayed on the pontoons and the sections of the roadway rose and fell. The coachman in front of us up on the driver’s seat just lifted his whip, which was decorated with a white ribbon, and the horse lost his footing, buckled at the knees and remained prostrate in a confusion of harness. From the impact of the vehicle behind us, in which my bride’s parents were sitting, we were thrown forward, a bursting of wood could be heard, a neighing, a thunder of hooves, and the other horse, which had torn itself loose, broke into a gallop between the lines of autos, a gray horse speckled all over with red, like the bridal veil that was fluttering out of the window. One of the shafts of the coach behind us had punched through our conveyance and its splintered point stuck out through the upholstery. The coachman ran after the runaway horse, his woolen waterproof flapping, swinging his whip, and the occupants of the automobiles that had come to a stop stuck out their heads. The fallen horse lay on his side, motionless, his legs stuck out stiffly from him, except for the broken foreleg, over the bloody bone-stump of which our coachman bent down. With eyes obliquely straining the horse looked up at him, his head patiently leaned on the shaft, his nostrils and ears trembling, and wavy lines and whorls shimmering through the dark brown skin about the fore-head, eyes and nose. The roadway rocked, the waves rose high, the wind whistled and, under the weight of the stalled traffic and the people who had rushed up to see, the bridge sank. Policemen and firefighters arrived, the wail of the sirens audible from a distance, brought lines with them, cranes, stretchers and tools, and men in helmets and rubber coats knelt about the horse, freed it from the traces, tied it fast under the arm of the crane on the wrecker and the horse let it all be done to him, softly snuffling, a little foam at his mouth, and officials with whistles and brusque motionings with their white gloves got the traffic moving again. As the horse under the derrick was being slowly swung onto the floor of the truck he turned his head in astonishment toward the coachman, and likely saw him for the last time, and while the horse, lying on his side, was being tied down, police came this way from the park with the other, recaptured horse, which reared and the policemen hung onto him by his bridle, their legs dangling high. The shaft was pulled out of the back wall of our coach, we got in with my bride’s parents, I forced myself in between them, took my bride on my lap, both coachmen harnessed the redly speckled horse between the shafts, climbed up onto the seat, held the reins pulled taut, and the coach in which we had been riding was hitched to the back of a firetruck, and thus everything was able to get rolling again, on the floating bridge, in the sea wind, under the screaming gulls. The police car led the procession, then came the red truck with the fallen horse and the men on either side, followed by the empty coach being towed, jolting along and swinging this way and that, and finally our vehicle, with two coachmen on the driver’s seat, close together, in light-gray cloaks, the collars thrown back wide over their shoulders, light-gray top hats on their heads, with feather plumes on them, I believe, and while I could see nothing that was going on because my bride’s veil lay over my face, we flew back in the coach with a jerk, and then it became evident that the horse, after it had left the bridge, snorting and striking sparks from the cobbles, had overtaken the men on the wrecker, and the police car, which was now moving along beside us, again sounded its siren as it proceeded. I held my bride wrapped in my arms, at my right her father leaned far out of the window, and her mother at the left leaned still farther out, yet whereas the father shouted stop, the mother screamed for us to go faster, her hat, garnished with flowers and lace, had fallen from her head, she threw herself backward and forward, her face contorted in a wild joy, with shrill shouts she spurred the horse on, and the vehicles in front of us scattered to one side, pedestrians flew from the sidewalk into the park, where a brass band was making music, and not until we got to the square, which we circled several times, did we come to a halt, after two police cars, pressing in from right and left, got the horse squeezed in between them, and this happened in front of the entrance to the hotel, where the room for the wedding night had been engaged, the porter was already standing there, ready to receive us.
This excerpt from Conversation of the Three Wayfarers was published by permission of New Directions Publishing. Copyright © 1963 by Peter Weiss, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main. Translation copyright © 1969 by E.B. Garside
Published on April 18, 2022.