I am four when this happens. We’ve had to move our tent from a site under pines’ soft swaying, where sand and orange dry needles are soft underfoot, to the side of the park that’s not yet closed for the season. Our new site is much larger, all sun-packed dirt, bare to park roads on two sides. On one side the land drops sharply toward the lake that is still out of sight through the trees.
We have a Coleman lantern, red-hatted over a clear tube and tall gas canister. We stand the lantern at one end of the picnic table as we did at the pine site. Every time I look in its direction my glance bends to its mantle, mantle the same word as above our fireplace at home, but this one is a knit sack nose, gently alight at the end of the night after marshmallows are finished and we empty dud popcorn into the fireplace, and my parents set the logs on end and stir ashes over the embers. A warm, steady, indoors kind of light, the lantern. Few lights of any kind show through the woods, even here on the rangers’ station side of the highway.
In the morning when we unzip the tent, the lantern is gone. Daylight at this hour is no longer summer daylight. Shadows are longer. There is no one at the ranger station until after breakfast. My father brings back news. The rangers have had several reports from around the park. It is this way every year, after Labor Day. We can buy another lantern in town—too bad about the cost—but for our few remaining nights, we’ll make do with the fireplace and flashlights.
I miss a time before theft, but I don’t miss the lantern. I don’t tell anyone. I’m old enough to sense that no one else is terrified of the red-hatted, mantle-nosed man who is out in the pines or miles down the road to town. When people came in the night to take him, and were right outside our beds, we didn’t wake.
Photo and composite: Sarah Malone