“Ban’s Dream of the Sea” by Alex Jeffers from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman. Also included in the author’s collection You Will Meet a Stranger Far From Home (Lethe Press, 2012).
Ban, short for Banto, is a son of the upper classes in the strange, isolated city of New Akkat. It’s strange because it’s a towering stone city located in the middle of the ocean, and also because when it was discovered by explorers from the Old World, it was deserted.
This story is a commentary on the arrogance of imposing your will on other things, whether that’s a place or other people. It’s also a statement on privilege and classism. As I said, Ban is of the upper class, as is his brother-in-law Keron. They have an inherent advantage over people like the nameless servant who has worked for Ban’s family “for longer than he can remember”. He and Keron are no spring chickens—their beards are graying—but she, the servant, has repeatedly extended her term of service in order to buy freedom for one after another of her children. Contrast this to Keron, who manages a handful of accounts for his father’s business and dresses in robes shot through with silver thread; and Ban, who lives off a stipend provided by his own father, and spends his days reading books.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Ban very much. He spends his days thinking, trying to understand the world and his place in it, and he’s nothing if not rational. He’s not a theist or a romantic, and he’s no coward. He doesn’t pull punches, instead choosing to tell people what he honestly thinks of their behavior. And he turns that same critical eye on himself.
Keron has come to Ban’s residence, high atop one of the city’s original towers, with the news that his wife, Etkass—who is also Ban’s sister—has gone missing. As they speak we learn that Ban and Keron have a past, though not a terribly distant one, and never a romance. They ceased having relations with one another only three years ago (remember, graying beards), following Keron’s marriage to Etkass. Keron caved to pressure from his family and has been trying to produce an heir. It hasn’t exactly been working out.
He tells Ban that he and Etkass quarreled following failed relations brought on by a racy dream they both had about a creature of the sea. We learn that Ban, too, has had the dream, about the same odd being. Not only that, but he’s been studying the strange history of their settlement, and has learned that people have been dreaming that same dream practically since they first sighted the city. The present action is then interspersed with passages from the book he’s been studying, an accounting of the formation of New Akkat. Notably, it details the tension that existed between the Admiral in charge of the band of explorers and a prelate sent along with them. The prelate was terrified of their discovery. He attributed the fully-formed city in the sea to the work of demons, and wanted it destroyed. The Admiral had him locked up.
Ban tells Keron there’s also a history of people answering the siren’s song by throwing themselves into the sea, and the frequency of such occurrences has recently spiked. He suspects Ektass is drowned. They go to the water’s edge, where Ban begins to have visions. It’s impossible to distinguish whether they are glimpses of the past he’s been immersed in, premonitions of the future, or a fiction designed to lure him into the water.
The various elements of the story continue to swirl together until finally we are given a passage from Ban’s dream of the sea that is, frankly, not long enough. I was not prepared for the story to end when it did, or be so undefined. Was it just that, a dream, or is what we’re shown real, possibly even the future? I’m not sure, but there comes a point when you need to stop analyzing things and simply dive in. So it is with this story, only right after I fully immersed myself in it, it stopped.