In honor of Halloween, we bring you an excerpt from Maile Chapman's ghostly tale, "Bit Forgive," which was originally published in APS 2.
This morning I received a letter ostensibly from my friend Niklas Nummelin, fifteen years almost to the day since the accidental sinking of his ship and his presumed death by drowning somewhere off the Finnish coast of the Bay of Bothnia.
The letter doesn’t contradict the version of events we all heard long ago from the single crewmember who survived by reaching (if indeed he was not incarcerated in) the small punition boat towed behind the Bit Forgive; criminal or not, we believed him when he described his drowning comrades shouting and gurgling through flooding mouths, pulling at him in the endless cold water with heavy, sharp fingers. And we forgave him for what we knew he must have done—fighting off the drowning men who reached his tiny boat, who would have sunk him under their combined weight. We believed and forgave because no one else from that ship came back to our harbor, neither alive nor dead, and surely we needed him, because we needed to see the proof preserved on his back, shoulders, and cheek in the form of five-fingered scars from those who did not survive.
Over time, and through human nature, the story has become romantic through retelling. Public grief is still extravagant and downtown on the anniversary of the sinking it is not uncommon to hear toasts to the memory of drowned friends, beloved family members, and neighbors. People laugh and cry easily to the words of a lilting, mournful song made popular in the aftermath.
I am not unmoved but I find the song inappropriately pretty. Instead of drinking and singing along I light beeswax candles in the cathedral, placing them in sight of the miniature wooden ship that hangs in midair as a tribute. And in private meditations I have accepted that life here has fallen into two chronologies: before Niklas and the others were lost, when seemingly all was straightforward and retrospectively optimistic; and now afterward, when it isn’t.
I have concealed my interest in the letter from my wife, Ninne, for obvious reasons.
I send greetings. From under the sea. Dear Bennet. You were my closest friend. I want you to remember me and our conversations. I want you to know that you were wrong when you argued, with no reason except bad temper, that death is the end of the individual.
You think this is a joke. I know because I know you. And you know me and you know I only sailed on the Bit Forgive because I wanted time and air. I had the story of my uncle sailing at my age. A trip at sea. A way to mark my graduation. I can tell you details no one alive can repeat. The crew were afraid of fire—flooding the decks, spreading stinking wet cattle skins on the wood. They posted a law that any man starting a fire on board would be used to snuff it out. But every man on board smoked tobacco and every man carried the makings of fire in his pockets. Below decks in the galley they cooked on an open fire. There were gratings in the deck to let the smoke rise and all the time I smelled it and sometimes I felt panic, thinking we are on fire... mostly it was only the preparation of pork and peas. But then someone smoked above. In the rigging, on the main top, I’m speculating, I don’t know what happened. There was smoke. The smoke choked us suddenly and then the ship fizzed like a match-head on the water. They were frightened and they panicked, looking for someone to punish while the fire spread. I climbed the rat-lines to a platform and saw flames moving deep below the gratings... it was hot, and there was no chance to escape... I remember the blackening deck. I did not guess that they had a military cargo until it blew: pitch-rings wrapped in hemp and dipped in tar, and fire-rings, each with a mortal blow of shot and gunpowder... I never would have sailed, had I known what the hold contained.
In the midst of fire I saw the final explosion blossom up through the grating. It took forever. But there wasn’t even time to urinate in my pants.
Then I saw the heavens of the sea, sparkling.
That was the end, Bennet. No one could have survived. But I did. I came back like waking up with alcohol poisoning. Nauseated and with the taste of smoke. I felt cold water moving my limbs. I felt cold water chilling every crevice. When I got my eyes open I didn’t know whether I was just above the water or just under it—the surface looks the same from either side. Then I saw below me the illusion of a road, growing out of the sea floor: a weal of black stones like scabs on an old injury.
Don’t laugh, Bennet. Don’t disbelieve. I was slow and numb. The tips of my shoes scraped the road’s crustaceous surface. Pulling and scraping. There was a silence so heavy and full that I thought my eardrums would tear. I was afraid that I was drowned; I knew I was underwater because of the silence, and the gloom. The quivering green obscurity. The stones were clear, but everything else was clouded by floating particulates, a slurry of pulverized rock and plankton. Then I felt light touches on my hands and saw in the silt a cloud of flickering fry. They were so small that I would have mistaken them for dust shaking out of my clothing. Except they moved with intention. And this, Bennet, this visitation of the fry was my first proof that although I felt alive, I was floating under the sea.
At this point I put down the pages.
Years ago, there was a popular fad for letters “from” the Bit Forgive.
Written anonymously, they were printed in newspapers and framed in pubs, these letters in which the departed offered wisdom and comfort to the living. “Open Letter to a Sailor’s Daughter,” for example, can still be purchased in the stationery shops. But those letters were maudlin, extremely sentimental, often with a religious undertone, and intentionally broad enough to appeal to anyone who read them.
I looked at the envelope for clues about how the letter had arrived and who had written it. The first envelope was blank. The second envelope inside was addressed to me in familiar handwriting. It wasn’t from Niklas, I knew. I might wish it could be, but that is only a response of the mind under an old pressure of grief, reaching for impossibilities.
Bennet, [the letter continued] I am out of the habit of ordering my thoughts coherently. I am ready to try. But when I think of how quick we were, the debates we had, I feel sad. All my sharp edges have been blunted. For peace of mind I will assume that you are much blunter now too.
My story should hold your interest. You know what I mean. My belief in the afterlife and your flat denial. Remember the physiology books. The philosophies of death and human nature? Bennet, you were wrong on some points. I still exist. But you were right about others. The afterlife holds no greater opportunity than actual life. I wish I had taken the chance to be more alive when I was alive and dry. I remember you with the medical school girls. Kissing their bleach-tainted breath. Sharing their severe preoccupations. Seducing them over dinners. Swallowing fishbones and gristle to impress them. Your appetites. Now I agree that appetite is the engine of life.
But Bennet, you wasted a lot of time in the last months of my life. Your research, voles and the birds that eat voles... who cares about the voles? The specimens, the shriveling, the tricks to make the dead voles look alive again? Why were there reconstructed voles stuffed with cotton on your bedside table? I have admitted that appetite is good. And I have admitted that you had a good appetite for life in your way. Please see my point and answer. What was wrong with you? Why did you let yourself stink of preservative? I feel angry, Bennet, remembering how much valuable time you wasted in the last year of my life in your selfish academic pursuits.
Still I would live that year forever. Because we met Ninne then. Her two black eyes like antique coins. Ninne came and saved me from you, your life of taxidermy, my brief encounters with the camisoles of your discarded medical school girls.
Ninne came and it was normal that she and I would be together. She pinched me to the point of blood and I pinched her too. We shushed in my room—did you know? Your days were full of killing, then instilling the illusion of life back into your voles. I wasn’t leaving her when I sailed, Bennet. I was leaving you. I was eclipsed by you even though I was smarter than you. There wasn’t much proof of it then.
But now I have survived. I have proven myself strong, and smart, and resourceful. I have triumphed.
At last I have bested you, Bennet, albeit in strange ways.
Naturally I continued reading. It was disappointing, but not unlikely, that any letter purporting to be from Niklas should contain some element of anger. Everyone knew that he was unpredictable. That aspect of Niklas in my memory is still painful, contracting and convulsing against itself, making me ashamed to remember it now that he is gone and incapable of changing for the better.
But contrary to the letter, it is absurd to think that Niklas would wish he’d followed his appetites more. For years we went together to all the student suppers and all the dances and I introduced him to every girl I met. And invariably I would then see him near the musicians, dancing bonelessly, dancing suggestively, lifting up the slim, spatulated fingers of one hand to disguise the other drawing closer and closer to a new girl’s bare upper arms, the neckline of her dress, reaching for her hair, which he would try to pull as a prelude to affection. And on the way home, if he’d been drinking, he would often fall backward out of his unlaced evening shoes. I was always sober enough to walk home but I couldn’t always pull or carry him along, not when he took my arms to drag me down with him. Once when he was very drunk he bit my arm through the sleeve of my dinner jacket, leaving a distinct bruise in the shape of teeth that I made him acknowledge every
day until it faded.
One typical evening we had been for several hours at our preferred cafe in the Esplanadi, drinking schnapps on the yellow velvet sofa in a side room with a view of artificial flowers. We’d brought Ninne—this was before women were permitted in the cafes unaccompanied—and she was sitting just beside me. She liked the music. She tapped her foot first against my leg, and then against Niklas’s, and every few minutes she stole a sip of my drink and swallowed a whole mustard herring from a shining silver dish. Her sleeves were lace and fitted well, exceedingly snugly from the neckline down over the palm of each hand, and her stockings, which I saw when she tapped my leg, were lace as well. Through the lace I could see, when she pressed close, the pattern of fine golden hairs growing along her skin.
“What do you think?” she asked, leaning against my arm, her breath metallic, her lips plump and silky with oil. “Will I end up with you, or with Niklas?” She leaned in and blinked, slowly, touching my cheek with her eyelashes. “How can I possibly choose?”
I pushed her back, gently, for her own good, but she resisted. She was, in some ways, very like Niklas even then.
“You live together,” she said, speculatively, and touched the side of my face with her unsmiling tongue.
I did not particularly wish for fish oil on my face. “You’re an evil girl,” I said pleasantly, pushing her again; looking up I saw in the mirror that something had happened. Niklas held a napkin to his face and the white towel on the arm of the barman was stained with his blood.
I took him outside and examined him under the streetlight. He’d cut his lip drinking from a broken glass, which he tried to demonstrate for me.
“I drank like this!” he said hoarsely, pantomiming with his arm and moving his head too quickly so that the blood started again and his eyes rolled back, but he was looking at me the whole time, and I knew he had seen Ninne offering me her tongue.
“Hold still,” I said, but he put his fingers to his face again.
“I don’t care how you did it,” I said, pressing my handkerchief over his mouth to shut him up and hide his bloody teeth. “At home you’ll sit in the kitchen and let me stitch that lip and if you complain I’ll stitch your mouth shut.”
He dropped his arm and put his head to one side, staring, unsteady on his feet. Behind us Ninne came to stand in the doorway, watching over the fur collar of her coat.
“Thanks,” he said curtly. He leaned on my shoulder and I turned to find a cab. I lifted my hand but before the driver stopped Niklas laughed in my ear and buckled his knees, taking me down with him on the cobblestones and ice, cracking my elbow so that I was not in fact able to stitch him up, and to the end of his life there was that scar under his lip, which I knew to be the charming evidence of his urge for self-sabotage.
Even if the letter did not come from Niklas, still, as it always is with letters, I could hear a voice speaking through it, and the voice sounded like Niklas. But I do not say this was pleasant. There is a tension between the past and the present. It is a cruel fact, easily recognizable whenever someone new picks up the unfinished work of someone who has gone before, completing it in their absence.