Story recap: Dr Florence has been carrying out investigations on the Lost Islands of Xogulano for some weeks now. The islands are home to many endemic creatures and plants never seen before. She continues to sleep with a flotation device wrapped around her because the islands are said to drop into the sea periodically and without warning. On one occasion she woke to find her device had been burst. Her interaction with the locals is fraught, they see her as being disrespectful to the islands, she sees them as foolish in their superstitious beliefs. The locals claim that bad spirits live on the islands and that their footprints and handprints can be seen in sand and rocks. Dr Florence has seen such evidence, but believes it to be the work of the locals themselves. Is she right? Or are there spirits on the island waiting to turn on her?
This morning had another alarming start to the day. My dreams felt crowded and busy. However when I woke the memories fled as I realised in panic that my feet were wet. Of course, my first thought was that the island was flooding, but I found no other water inside my tent, only in my socks that were sopping wet. There was no sign that someone had entered my tent, and flummoxed by the mystery I decided to make myself a fire for coffee and the drying of socks. The mystery deepened when I put my hand into my pocket to find my lighter and pulled out a small volvox colony, the large cells falling apart and slithering to the ground instantly.
The mystery of the wet feet unsolved, and the sun rising high, I set off for a hitherto unexplored island, one in the shape of a comma. There I discovered an incredible colony of spiders, living harmoniously with ants! The colony covered about 3sqm, on rocks, in cracks and swarming over nearby plants.
There are of course many recorded incidents of spider colonies and ants are known for their sociability, but ants and spiders tend to eat each other, not work together. I sat sketching the movement of the colony for some time. Particularly creepy was noticing that a number of the bugs swarmed in small areas, and looking closer, I could see that this swarming occurred on isolated footprints in the sand, and even one impressed into the rock. More games from the locals?
I decided to see just how far the colony collaboration went. I put a large cake crumb into a crack in the rock near the ant-spider hive, and then smeared some Vaseline on the edges of the crack, so that no bugs could crawl easily to the crumb. Within a few minutes, about thirty ants had formed a bridge across the hole. A spider then walked to the centre of the bridge, and with an ant clinging to its body it dropped into the hole on a single thread. Within moments, the dangled pair had rescued the crumb and taken it back to the hive. (diagram below)
I was watching the final part of this daring adventure, when my fisherman friend (whose previous visit had ended badly) arrived and cautiously approached me. He walked in his odd straight lines, clutching a handful of stones in case I did something blasphemous and he needed to warn off the bad spirits. It seems that our previous dispute was forgotten and he sat on a rock and watched the colonies with me. I pointed out one of the swarm filled footprints and asked if he knew anything about it.
“He told you,” he said proudly, “he told you there were footprints of the Lost Men.” I did have a vague memory of such a conversation had when I first arrived, but not the use of the words Lost Men, so I asked,
“Lost Men? I thought it was spirits.”
He chuckled a little and looked at the footprints with the same dazed fascination with which one gazes into a crackling fire. When he spoke, the chuckle had gone,
“They lived on these islands long ago, they were like you, believed they were clever, believed they knew more than nature itself. They played with it. They created new animals, animals within animals, monsters.”
“How did they create them?”
“They had many skills, powers. The power to bend nature to their will, but they abused it. They forced unions that were no good. They bound creatures to plants.”
This sounded fascinating, if slightly unlikely. I asked if any such hybrids still lived on the islands. The fisherman huffed a non-committal answer, so I tried a new tack.
“So what happened to the Lost Men? Why aren’t they here now?”
“What happened to them is what happens to all who meddle with nature, they are swallowed by the sea.”
He clearly wanted this to be a dramatic end to the conversation, but for me it raised more questions than it answered. Why would the sea swallow them? And if they drowned, why are there footprints in the sand? When I asked these questions he became a little terse.
“I didn’t say they drowned, I said they were swallowed. And if you continue to mess with the beings of these islands, they will swallow you too.”