Locals don’t camp in their own towns in the off-season. This is as true in Sheep’s Nest as anywhere else. Yet here is Detective Ficus’ sedan, rolling up the driveway of Low Branch Tent and Trailer Park on a late October morning.
“Herm!” he barks at me as he walks into the office. “What are you wearing? You look like a fuckin’ dolphin.”
I follow his eyes to my jacket sleeve. I am not sure that there is much likeness between aquatic mammals and aquamarine brocade, but then again he has never had a talent for rigorous and accurate identification.
“Haha,” I say, as I assign him the campsite farthest from the office.
“I’ll be staying for three nights,” he declares, looking pleased.
“Great,” I croak.
He leaves with his arms full of firewood.
The porchlights of the office only brighten a few feet of grass. Beyond this scant aureole, there is a thick and woolly darkness. Trees wholly obscure the distant fairy lights of the year-round trailers. Sitting in the office in the evening, I am a suspect illuminated, waiting for interrogators to emerge from the shadows.
None come that night. At eleven, I set out for final rounds. I walk past the pool, which is dry, filling up with leaves, undisturbed. The bathrooms are empty. There is a thin film of greying water on the floor that I will clean tomorrow. I continue along the road. At the first trailer, a campfire is crackling away, but no one is in sight. I knock on the door and wait thirty seconds.
“Jo!” I call out, banging more insistently. There is rustling inside the trailer. Then the door opens a crack.
“Hermes?” Jo asks, blinking at me, her white hair mussed. She is wearing a long nightgown and has a quilt around her shoulders.
“Jo, there’s a fire going in your pit.”
“No, there isn’t,” she says automatically, before opening the door wider and craning her head outside. “Okay, well there is a fire but it’s not my fire.”
I don’t press Jo further because I can’t even remember her ever having a campfire before.
“Guess I’ll ask around,” I say.
“Could be kids from town, too, you know,” Jo suggests.
“Yeah.” I borrow a pot of water from Jo and douse the flames.
At the next trailer, there is another fire blazing like Christmas morning. I bang on the trailer door several times without reply. Walking around the other side of their trailer, I see that their car is gone. I go back to borrow a second pot of water from Jo, who looks tired and resigned when she hands it to me.
“Sorry Jo. Last time, I promise.” She shakes her head.
At the third trailer, there is a third lonely fire. This time, I do not approach the darkened doorway of the trailer. I walk faster, past the fourth, the fifth, the sixth trailers. Each is glowing with flickering rust. I start jogging down the hill toward the river. I pass unpopulated site after unpopulated site with fire pits stoked and blazing on my way to the sole tent.
But Sam Ficus’ lot is dark. There is no fire in the pit, not even embers remnant of a fire, and no lantern light is seeping through the translucent canvas of the tent walls.
“Ficus!” I shout. His head shoots out of the zippered doorway.
“There’s a fire in every pit in this campground except yours.”
“Is there a rule that says campers need to have synchronized fires? Am I wrecking the vibe?”
“I find it odd that you’re the only camper all week who bought firewood, and yet you are somehow the only one without a fire.”
“Look, Herm, I know that you’re not the detective here. I can look into this work of strangely harmless arson if you want.”
“Where is your firewood? I don’t see it.”
“I left it next to the fire pit.”
“It’s not there now.”
“Maybe it was stolen by someone who used it to light all those fires,” he suggests mockingly. I turn away from him briskly and set off jogging back up the hill, past the long line of burning beacons.
At the office, I retrieve the long hose then haul it as quickly as I can manage back toward the trailers. To my relief, Jo’s site and the second site are as dark as I left them half an hour ago. The third site, though, is unexpectedly dark. The fire must have gone out on its own, I reason.
The fourth, the fifth, the sixth sites, too, no longer have fires burning. I put down the hose and retrace my earlier path to the tenting area. All is unlit and quiet, until I round the bend in the road to the final site.
There is Ficus, sitting placidly in front of a massive fire that looks ready to leap out of the pit.
“Your talk of fire made me want to start one myself.”
“But your wood was gone.”
“No, it was right by the pit, like I told you. I don’t know why you couldn’t see it.”
“It wasn’t there!”
“Calm down, Herm. Memory is like flame. It’s always moving, always morphing. You can’t keep a fixed picture of it in your mind. Did you know that fifty percent of memory is lost within an hour of being made? And that doesn’t even account for how the remaining half gets distorted.”
“I’ve heard that from you before.”
“When do you think?”
“Are you making this about a twenty-year-old arson case? Let it go already. Water under the bridge.”
“Water doesn’t flow under burned-down bridges.”
“That’s real clever.”
“You’d better keep an eye on that fire. It’s awfully wild.”
“And who’ll keep an eye on you? You seem a little out of control yourself.”
I sweep back to the office like a storm, leaving the hose by the road.
I stop my morning rounds at the end of the trailers and avoid the tenting section throughout the afternoon as well. When Ficus drives out of Low Branch and turns toward town early that evening, I take the opportunity to walk down and check on his site.
There are no campfires burning in any of the pits as I pass. Reaching the last tent site, I am relieved to see that the grass around Ficus’ fire pit is still growing well. There is now a cooking grate over the pit, which might at least explain why he had wanted such an inferno yesterday. Walking closer, I see that some of the embers are even now still bright among the ashes.