Xogulano: Animal within an Animal

When I first arrived at the mainland, I hardly got the chance to spend a moment alone. Every night the locals would seek me out to share moonshine and fresh caught fish with me. They even appeared at my hotel room door – although the door was more of a curtain. Luckily for my research, they were happy to share a cavalcade of bizarre stories. Of fish that carried demons in their blood, ready to swim into your own veins after a touch. Of spirits that lived in the rocks, their movement across the islands only known because of the footprints and fingerprints left on rocks and flowers. (I have yet to see any of these).

One unusually grizzled gentleman, with a beard curled around his arthritic fingers, spoke of ‘animals within animals’ and ‘souls within souls’. He claimed that such beings were proof of a fiendish history to the islands. I attempted to explain that an animal within an animal is not such an unusual concept, after all, what else is pregnancy? He seemed to find my explanation laughable, and insisted that if I dared to venture onto the islands I would see, and be forever damaged by seeing.

Perhaps it is my contrary nature, but I felt a small frisson of pleasurable defiance this morning, when I discovered this innocent beetle, manifesting the very animal-within-animal situation that had caused the gentleman such distress. From my first glance, my curiosity was piqued by the small lumps in the shell on its back.

I watched the beetle for some time, and saw the lumps grow in size, protruding further. It was dusk when finally the eyes appeared, one set to each protrusion. And then it was in the darkness, lit only by my torch, that the offspring (because of course that is what they are) began to pop, one by one from the beetle’s back. I assume this is a method of protecting the young. Once the ‘birthing’ has occurred, the mother beetle is left vulnerable, with a number of holes in her shell. It wasn’t long before a bird had swooped down to suck the beetle’s innards through one of the holes.

Dorsal and lateral view
A drawing of another defence method employed by the beetle

Naturally I have not been damaged by this observation, merely fascinated.

As a side note, there is still no sign that the islands might drop into the sea. Although I still pump up my flotation device each night before I go to sleep.

Dr Florence

I Keep Small

I am very careful. I keep small. Unobtrusive, with only pin pricks of behaviour and momentary stutters.

I don’t mention you.

Or me.

Or the waxing waning of my shadow beneath your light.

I keep my pens in a row. I drink coffee with soya milk. I try not to sleep through meetings. I smile politely, I flick crumbs from my shirt.

Then I remember your smile and a frenzy of memories rattle my stupor to a waking roar, with an ocean incomplete and a sky full of holes.

I write an email and forget the heading. I make another coffee.

I watch time tip so slowly that my eyes cross.

I’ll meet you on the overmorrow,

Until then I barely exist.

 

Selfselfself: Brain Injury etc

DISCLAIMERS: This is intended as the first of series of posts talking about B.I. and PTSD (I hope to release one a week), but I am not good at writing about myself, I’m not comfortable with it, therefore they may come across as cold or clumsy, I’m sorry about that.

I am only writing from my own personal experience, which may be narrow and/or inaccurate. I welcome any addition or dispute in the comments.

Something happened a decade ago and it keeps pestering my head, oozing itself into mundane moments, when I’m working, when I’m cooking dinner. The thoughts are always there, ready to seep and I think maybe it’s because I never did what I swore I would do – share what I learned to help other people in the same situation. So, here in a lumpen fashion, is my beginning, hopefully it will get smoother as time goes on…

Ten years ago I was in a bad accident. My heart stopped, the flow of blood to my brain stopped, organs ruptured and I got bashed up. The two enduring problems as a result of this were that I got PTSD and a brain injury. A year after the accident (from now on known as P.A. Post Accident) my IQ was tested and found to be below 80. Three years P.A. and I was still spending a lot of my time in bed, mostly unable to listen to music or read, often even unable to open my eyes, but with my mind never resting. Five years P.A. and I read my first book (I could read short things before this). It was a Mark Steel book, but I have no real memory of it now, except that it was an intensely difficult but beautiful joy. At that time, I also started working as a volunteer at a wood. A year later and I was working part time as a gardener. Eight years P.A. I got the full time job I have now, only one person there knows about the accident, although sometimes I get odd looks when my brain goes wonky.

Before the accident, I was always self-sufficient, somebody others thought of as capable in just about any situation. I loved throwing myself into danger, just to see if I could cope. This meant that I floundered and fucked up a lot, but I always found a way of looking after myself – somewhere to sleep, a job, food to eat. With the accident I lost all that, I became afraid of the dark, people, imaginary monsters. I relied on others for everything.

Before the accident I had never thought of myself as somebody in tune with my emotions or body, but I was. I knew how much effort it took to move, I knew what felt good, I knew how I would react in any given situation. I was familiar with the pattern of my own thoughts. I had emotional routines that I would follow without ever having to pay attention to what I was doing, I just felt, and connected with people. With a brain injury everything changed completely. I couldn’t eat what I used to, food made me feel ill. Everything smelt wrong and looked wrong. I couldn’t sleep. My body would do odd things, suddenly lurching to one side, contorting in bizarre ways or becoming completely paralyzed. My emotions became wild unpredictable animals that would leap out at me without reason. I would overreact to everyone and everything and then feel terrible for doing so. The inside of my brain felt wrong, the way my thoughts moved and connected was disturbingly unfamiliar. For a long time I believed utterly that I was an alien inhabiting this dead person’s body. I felt like an imposter with my friends and bored when looking at my old photographs. Plus I was in constant pain with no idea why.

That was all a lot to process, let alone to try and fix. Whenever I tried to focus on one aspect, to solve one problem, all the others mounted up. I was completely overwhelmed. I felt like I standing at the edge of the sea in a raging storm, just when I found my footing I would be picked up and thrown into the waves with no idea which way was up or how to grab a breath.

Working how to care for this new, bizarre, sensitive self took a lot of learning. Despite my crappy brain, I had to learn more about myself, life and the mind, than I had learned about anything previously. How to look after myself, how to act, what mattered. I found that all the doctors and psychologists I saw didn’t really understand my symptoms and I assumed that I was the one being weird. Having met other people with B.I. since, I’ve realized that while B.I. can affect people in an infinite number of ways, certain things I experienced are pretty common. I’m hoping that by passing on what I managed to learn, I can be helpful. I’m going to give it a go.

Some of the things I’m hoping to talk about in future blogs:

  • Understanding what the brain is and how it goes wrong
  • The basics of looking after yourself
  • The myth of getting better
  • True boredom and an ocean of time
  • Psychosis, paranoia and all that drama
  • How to talk to doctors
  • How to become a sick person, how to become a well person
  • Staying awake forever
  • Learning to do stuff again
  • The mechanics of belief

This is Not a Love Poem

A torn photograph of a turbulent sea

A crawling ladybird, its wings plucked free

A stained jacket sleeve, a discarded shoe

These foolish things remind me of you

 

A bruise and a stitch I can’t fathom at all

A mysterious stain on the bathroom wall

A doll dismembered and reformed with glue

These foolish things remind me of you

 

Drops of blood leading out of the door

A chalk outline, half-drawn on the floor

Your name crossed out in a botched tattoo

These foolish things remind me of you

 

Xogulano: A Volvox Colony

A volvox is a colony of single-celled organisms that live in the sea, all working together to ensure survival. The cells within the colony may be specialised, in the same way humans living in a community have different roles and skills, independent organisms working together. Some cells may have eye stalks, or have cilia used for swimming. It can be difficult to distinguish a colony of single-celled organisms from a multi-celled organism, and it is likely that multi-celled organisms, such as ourselves, originally evolved from colonies.

Colony organism
Volvox Colony

On the islands of Xogulano, volvox colonies are rather larger than usual, with cells easily visible to the naked eye. Now, this may sound impossible, but actually there are many visible cells. Some single celled creatures, for example some algae, can reach a size of thirty centimetres.

This morning, I was drinking my coffee, a thick syrup of caffeine, when I noticed a number of white balls bobbing on the surface of the waves. It was quite a shock when I fished one out of the sea and discovered it was one of these colonies. A further shock when it broke apart in my hands, collapsing into the many cells that made up the whole. As the cells slithered away into the sea, they joined to reform the colony.

bugs 4 - Copy (4) - Copy
Movement

As a scientist I am naturally drawn towards experimentation. I played Frankenstein with a few of the colonies. I broke apart one volvox and placed half the disjointed cells into a bucket. Then did the same with another. Fascinatingly, a new volvox formed, this one had two tails and only one eye stalk (due to the components available in the bucket).

A fisherman, a previous visitor to the island, saw my experiment and rowed over to the rocky outcrop where I stood with my bucket. Without daring to set foot on the island, he demanded to know what I was doing. When I explained, he took a handful of small stones from his pocket and threw them on the ground, I suspect this is a way of warding off bad spirits. He informed me that playing with the nature of the beasts of Xogulano will invite them to play with my nature. With a face contorted by superstition, he whispered that I would not survive much longer on the island. I bade him good day and continued my observations.

Reproduction
Volvox reproduction

Further study confirmed that the Xogulano colonies reproduce much like most volvox. Reproduction takes place inside the colony and the cells divide by mitosis. Of the two new cells formed, one stays as part of the colony and the other moves to the middle, in the ‘belly’ of the colony it divides further before finally being released.

Short story: Insidious Demands

– Hey there pretty lady, are you sitting all alone? A beautiful lady like you shouldn’t be alone.

– Oh, erm, hello, I’m just waiting for my friends, they’ll be here soon. Any minute now.

– Why don’t I keep you company then, hmm? You look like you could do with some company, just until they get here.

– Well, um, I’m not sure… it’s a bit of a school reunion, you see? Not an official one, just the old gang getting together again. I’m really quite nervous, it’s been so long.

– That’s why you need me to talk to, make a new friend while you’re waiting for the old ones.

– Well maybe, I mean. Maybe they’ll think it’s rude if I’m talking to someone else…

– Hey now, you shouldn’t be worrying about that, when we’ve got this chance to get to know each other, hmm?

– Well, I suppose. And it’s the kind of thing that we used to do back then, just start chatting to some random stranger. Kirsty especially, I could tell you some crazy stories. Whenever we took the train we’d end up talking to some boys or making friends with an old tramp.

– Well that’s great, I think you and me already have a real connection, don’t you? How about I buy you a drink?

–  Oh I don’t want to start drinking yet. Once the others get here, then I imagine it will be a free for all. More alcohol than you can shake a stick at, you know? Not that we were alcoholics, but we did like a drink.

– You don’t need to be so uptight about it, just have a drink with me.

– Oh Kirsty would love you. She did like a pushy fella who’d buy her a drink, she liked to play with them, she liked the risk. Oh, I can’t wait to see the old gang, I haven’t seen them in years, not that it should matter, I mean when you’re friends with someone, that’s it for life, isn’t it? They say your teenage friends are your greatest friends, right? Didn’t they say that in a film once? We were all very different back then though, and there were reasons we stopped being friends…

– Right, well that’s interesting…

– Kirsty especially got out of hand, not violent exactly, but, well there were incidents. Not that it was her fault, if I’d had that man as my father I’d have done a lot more than throw bottles at a car. Of course it would be all different if we were kids now, we’d spend our whole lives on the phone chatting to paedophiles. And you know kids today, the only time they actually look at one another is when they need to take a selfie, or a we-lie, or is it an us-y? I don’t know why they need to keep making up new words, like there aren’t enough words to deal with already. I mean there’s a whole dictionary full of the things.

– How about I get us that drink…

– Anyway, I was telling you about Kirsty, you’ll like her, all the boys did at school. It’s odd because she was never that fastidious about personal hygiene, but then they say attraction is all about pheromones, so maybe she just didn’t wash hers off as much. You’d think the feet smell would mask the pheromones though wouldn’t you?

– Mmm.

– Fastidious, now there’s an interesting word that kids today never use. They’re too busy with their OMGs and YOLOs. But anyway, Kirsty, apparently she’s a big shot consultant now, earning a fortune in the city. Well it’s not really surprising, she was always clever. Clever and bored, that was her problem, school just wasn’t enough to occupy her, she could pass exams without even studying, lucky cow.

– Well that’s great, but maybe…

– Anyway, we all found each other on Facebook, it’s amazing isn’t it? Modern technology? Fifteen years, all five of us scattered across the globe. All going about our business never expecting to see each other again. Then a few clicks of the mouse and there you are, the whole gang together. Kirsty, Jennifer, Archisha, little Sarah and big Sarah. Of course big Sarah is not so big now. She actually looks fantastic. Not that she didn’t when she was a teenager, but, well, you know what it’s like for larger girls, it’s tough. Except it’s probably fine now, now that obesity is so common. Big Sarah would probably be considered quite svelte. Quite svelte Sarah we’d have to call her. Although I expect we’d be arrested under the Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad Act for it. You know at my son’s school they actually have a points system for bullying? Like with driving, you get too many points for picking on other kids and you have to take an anti-bullying test. Well, I said to the teacher, that’s just another form of bullying isn’t it? You’re bullying my son now, how about you take a test? How about I set that damn test? And yes, I did swear, but you can’t let these teachers push you around, can you?

– Ok, um, I really need to go now…

– Oh sorry, sorry, I got totally side-tracked, I was telling you about the gang, wasn’t I? Well there was Jennifer, sweet, mousy Jennifer, all the boys who didn’t go for smelly Kirsty, went for Jen. I never really understood why, I mean, she was pretty in a bland, unthreatening way, but there was no spark to her. Maybe that’s what they liked, someone who’d make them feel sparky by comparison. Boys don’t like to try too hard do they?

– Lady, let go of my arm…

– But I haven’t told you about Archisha and she’ll be here any minute. And hers is such a lovely story. When she joined the gang she was much like Jennifer, mousy. She followed us around with those big eyes, trying to make jokes, but she wasn’t funny, just awful. Then one of the boys took a shine to her and then she started to take a shine to herself, you know? I mean, we helped her out with make-up, lent her clothes and so on, but it was a total transformation, she blossomed. Became a bit full of herself to be honest, and she didn’t stop cracking those awful jokes, but the boys would just laugh and laugh, trying to impress her. I suppose they thought she was exotic, or is that impoliticly correct now too?

– I need to go, please let me go…

– Yes, that’s right, you run along now. Run right along.

Xogulano: The Plant that Kidnaps

My stay on the lost islands of Xogulano continues.

I have spent most of my time here without any company. This arrangement suits me, since I find I am soothed and stimulated by my own thoughts, but perturbed by the interruptions of others. However, it was surprisingly pleasant to be visited by a local fisherman. It seems he is one of the few locals who dares to set foot on the islands. Although when he does so, he will only walk and climb in straight lines at right angles, believing this will calm the ‘demon spirits’ of the islands.

Taking this opportunity to gather knowledge, I asked the fisherman exactly how plants and animals manage to survive the frequent complete submerging of the islands. He answered,

“They swim.”

“How can this apply to plants?” I asked, but received only an enigmatic smile in response.

I am hoping to be on the islands when submerging occurs, so that I can observe the survival methods of the inhabitants. However, I fear for my safety when they do.

plants 9 - Copy (5)

While my fisherman friend was sitting on a rocky outcrop, dangling his line in a small pool, I found this plant growing nearby. I quickly gleaned a hint of its survival strategy – a large tuber makes up the base of the plant, and it has a waxy covering that may well be waterproof. Attempts to cut my way through the surface of the tuber failed. The leaves themselves are sticky, similar to the surface of Nepenthes leaves (the carnivorous pitcher plant). I watched as flies became attached to the leaves, getting tangled in long hairs.

I asked my visitor for information about this bizarre organism, hoping to hear more about its carnivorous habits.

“Not eating flies, doesn’t need to eat flies,” he said, emphatically.

Assuming he was ignorant of the subtleties of plant nutrition, I began to explain how plants make their own food, but still require nitrogen, which can be found in the corpses of insects. However, he impatiently waved my words away, insisting that the plant was not eating the insects, but kidnapping them.

“To make home, to be security,” he explained. I was incredulous. Ants often have a symbiotic relationship with plants, protecting them from being eaten in exchange for a place to live. However, I have never encountered a plant that took ants by force for such a purpose. I expressed my doubt at his theory and he shrugged as if slightly offended, and  walked back to his boat following the same awkward angular path back to his boat.

Watching the plant later that evening, I observed that the leaves were not permanent fixtures as one would expect. As it became dusk, they were sucked back inside, taking the ants, still alive but unable to escape, into the plant.

The next morning, when the leaves sprouted anew from the tuber, there was no sign of living or partly digested ants, and I suspect my visitor may be right.

Dr Florence

Microfiction: The Wordicons

Thanks to Wisp of Smoke  for inspiring the title. Some more very small tales, unconnected, although I always end up imagining a story that ties them altogether. Anyway…

 

Inside the locket she kept a demon’s egg.

He carved and whittled, preserving the faces of the dead in fruit. It was the least he could do.

“It was just easier to be clever, when there was so much less to know,” said the polymath, mournfully.

She sat on the bus, gripping the seat in front, with her eyes shut. ‘They ripped him out of me’, she whispered to no one in particular.

His expression flicked back and forth from hopeful to blank to hopeful; as nothing helpful continued to happen.

Xogulano: The Lichen Fish

Sea Lichen fish
Lichen Fish

Further publication of my research on the lost islands of Xogulano. I have now been two weeks on the islands and they show no sign of dropping into the sea. However, I have taken to sleeping at night with a flotation device wrapped around my waist and a flare wrapped in a plastic bag and tied to my wrist.

The fish you see above is one I pulled from a shallow pool between the two major islands. The boatmen were shouting at me not to touch it saying it was poisonous, but I experienced no ill effects. I suspect their superstitions take precedence over logic, and it certainly looks like a fish that could contain bad spirits.

I have named it the lichen fish, because what looked like a number of colourful warts at first, turned out to be lichens attached to its skin.

As far as I can ascertain, it mimics rocks, so that orange sea lichens are attracted to, then it actually farms the lichen. Lichen are a symbiosis between fungi and alga – algae  photosynthesize and create food for the fungi. However, once the lichens have attached to the fish, it also gets a meal, absorbing the nutrients through its scales. It’s possible that the lichen benefits too, the fish can swim to shallower waters (which of course shift with the tide) and perhaps give the lichen a mobility it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Dr Florence