When I was in the fourth grade, Elenore Kuntz was found dead in her bedroom. The cause of death was smoke inhalation and severe burns that covered more than eighty per cent of her body. Elenore had burned to death but nothing else in her house or even room was burned except for the braided wool rug her body was found on. There were no traces of lighter fluid or kerosene anywhere on or around her body. No one knew how or why Elenore caught on fire.
Our small town had only one church, Emmanuel Lutheran, which became the center of refuge while townsfolk gossiped and panicked about why Elenore burst into spontaneous combustion. The most popular theories highlighted witchcraft on Elenore’s part and/or a visit from Satan himself.
My mother told me such things, including her cause of death, was “a load of hogwash.” She said someone had “murdered that poor girl” but the tittle-tattles of small-town gossips and illiterates would thwart the truth from being revealed.
Elenore came from a good family, she was popular, friendly, and our small town saw little-to-no new people. It was easier to believe the evidence—and there was none. Elenore burned from the inside out. Something else had come here in place of the Holy Spirit.
Elenore’s parents moved from that home without selling it. They packed up what they could and left without looking back. There wasn’t even a funeral.
Pastor James Sawyer held a vigil for her the following Wednesday. Few were there to honor the departed. Whispers of “she did it to herself” and the word “black magic” hushed the palm candles with condemning breath. They wanted Pastor James to tell them what to do next. Fear swept through the old-timers and egotistically devout.
There was assurance from the pastor that Satan had not come to haunt us. He also said that Elenore did not practice witchcraft. When asked, he said he did not have proof. The crowd chattered every “what if” theory imaginable before eating spice cake and drinking Hester Martin’s version of coffee.
A few months passed and things settled down. The town had a new video store, opened in an old brick building that was once painted blue in the ‘40s, when it was a bank. The bank closed long before I was born and had always been the kind of building that simply existed, the way a tree or giant rock would artlessly stand in a place for so long it no longer captured attention. It stood across the street from the Red Rooster Bar and the Shepherd Country Store. The church stood on the same side of the road as the bar and store did, about twenty-three steps down from the bar.
The video store was run by a newly moved-in couple. They were in their late fifties, looking to live a simple life. They had been here when Elenore’s death was the town scandal but were new enough to keep their distance from the townies.
My mother made me take piano lessons from Pastor James’ wife, Belinda, on Sundays. She was nice enough and always smelled of perfume. She’d hug me, give me a sugar cookie, and we’d get to business. I knew very early on in my piano-lesson days that I lacked discipline for such practices. I didn’t have the heart to tell Mrs. Sawyer that I didn’t want to play. She was teaching me for free, after all. It seemed more for her and less for me. After lessons, I’d walk past the video store after grabbing a few penny candies from the Shepherd Store. The old couple would rock in chairs near the front entrance, smoking cigarettes and listening to public radio. They’d ask if I was renting a movie, they’d let me choose one for free as long as I brought it back. But I told them we didn’t have a VCR, gave a wave and a thank you, and was on my way. It had been nearly ninety days since I had heard Elenore’s name, but that Sunday, her ghost was in the air.
Elenore’s lineage had been discovered through public record. Her mother descended from Cornelia Zangari Bandi, Italian daughter of Count Francesco Maria Zangari. Cornelia had a son who became a high cardinal and bishop, and her daughter mothered Pope Pius VI. Piety ran through the veins of that family and yet the death of the matriarch, Cornelia called upon what our people referred to as the Devil’s work. Cornelia was the first documented case of spontaneous human combustion in the late 1700s. She had burned from the inside out. Like Elenore, she had burned to nearly all but ash. This was their proof—Elenore was a witch.
Pastor James was adamant with the townsfolk that such things during that time were more accepted as an answer because modern science had not yet developed. The account of Cornelia Zangari Bandi’s death was neither denied nor confirmed, it was best to be rational and believe what was tangible. Their deaths shared a similar and eerie veil. Fred Asterbaum asked the pastor if he believed that it was simply a coincidence. He hung his head and said, “A strange one.”
It was later that evening, when howls of fire trucks and ambulances echoed through the town again, the first time since Elenore’s death, to Miriam Cunningham’s home, where she claimed to return home from church to find her husband burned to death on his favorite recliner. The scene was an ash figure of Mr. Cunningham molten into his partially burned chair, where it was hard to discern where he ended, and the chair began. Neighbors spoke of her screaming that Elenore had come back to haunt or hunt—it was hard to understand her bellow.
This time, police came to investigate—earlier, they had trusted the fire department’s assessment of Elenore. What was left of Mr. Cunningham would be tested. They hauled Mrs. Cunningham in the squad car to Bernadette Larson’s home nearby because she simply could not sleep in a home that smelled of her charred husband.
Shock boomeranged into the walls of every home. The nay-sayers and believers alike spoke about the combustion of Mr. Cunningham only three months after Elenore’s demise, or fruition, depending on who you asked. The proof was in the pudding, as Esther Gibson said. Pastor James would have to admit it now. He, like my mother, said something was happening but it was more sinister than a fable about a witch. “Too much spook and not enough truth,” my mother said. She didn’t have any answers but told me to watch out for those who had them all. Then came Scott Marab, an eighteen-year-old regular at the Rooster. Laws weren’t exactly upheld in town. Scott drank his fair share until he was on his ass just outside the bar. He would have drove home, but the bartender confiscated his keys, easily and right in front of him, without Scott noticing. From what could be seen, he had a bottle of Jim Beam in his truck and polished the thing off – it was still in his right hand when he was found. Scott had passed out drunk, or at least we would all pray to the Good Lord that he did before bursting into flames. Somehow, no one noticed him burning up inside of his pickup. The interior was a melted bog of ash, metal, plastic, fabric and Scott. This was the first time not involving city police was mentioned. Tex Harro, the owner and bartender of the Rooster, didn’t need no trouble. He’d been serving to minors for some time. The urge to leave matters at the hands of the Shepherd community came from Larry and Lynette Groskopf, the video store owners. They agreed that police would only make matters worse. Whatever was happening here needed to be handed to God – keep the outsiders out, that’s what was best. They, decidedly among the town folk, were not outsiders. They bought an old farmhouse on Homer Davis Road and wanted to have a petting zoo in the fall. They said they’d buy goats, sheep, and pigs. They spoke our language. There was a unanimous decision, the Groskopfs were right.
Pastor James asked his flock to remain level-headed and offered the sacrament the following Sunday even though it was not the first Sunday of the month, when we were normally given the dissolvable wafer and wine. “Body of Christ given for you,” he said. Christ’s body did not taste good. His blood was even worse. I never felt any holier, any more protected, or absolved when I consumed the sacrament – youth can fog the obvious intentions of simple acts. The sermon never began. There were questions about the burnings. A line read from the bible was spoken aloud. “Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Matthew 25:41.” Chatter and cries hemorrhaged through the pews and my mother rolled her eyes.
“No one is cursed, no one need fear the poor girl who died – she was not and is not a plague on your souls,” Pastor James said. He could not argue the counter point – Elenore’s ancestry, her fleeing parents, her concealed remains, no funeral or last rights. This was an incantation of Elenore’s making, and we were all waiting to see who was next. Pastor James sighed and lowered his head, “Let us pray.” He, and his ignorantly fearful congregation recited the twenty-third psalm. We always said it, every Sunday at church and every night at bed. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” It seemed to do the trick.
I always saw Colleen Furth when I would walk home from piano lessons. She lived just across the gravel road from the Shepherd Store. She’d usually show me a new toy or run into the store with me to buy a few penny candies with coins from her fanny pack.
I finally mustered the courage to tell my mother and Belinda Sawyer that I no longer wanted to play the piano, and to my disbelief, they agreed. I gave it a fair shot. The only thing I would miss was seeing Colleen for those few minutes. She was my age, and I didn’t get a chance to play with kids my age very often. It was only a few Sundays afterward when Colleen could not be found. She was outside playing like always, right in broad daylight and just vanished. Everyone in town pitched in to look for her that day and night. My mother was on the phone with Mrs. Sawyer discussing the matter while chain smoking cigarettes long past my bedtime. She finally came in to tell me that no one had found Colleen and school was cancelled. She hugged me tight and thanked God that I quit taking piano lessons – it could have been me. I asked her how Colleen could just up and vanish. My mother believed that she had been picked up by a passer-through. We didn’t have those, and townsfolk would have noticed an outsider trucking through the center of town in the middle of the day. If Elenore’s curse came down to burn up Colleen, maybe she was small enough to scorch and blow away. Maybe she stood right there in the sun and let the blaze take her. That belief was enough to stop most everyone from looking for her, including her own mother. It was better this way – better than finding her body somewhere. My teacher did not speak of it. She quit coming to church and left the conversation about Elenore’s curse to the siege that decided all deaths had to do with the witchcraft at hand. She was called a dike, a liberal cooch, and a hippie rug-muncher. She was happy to leave Shepherd and called the authorities on her way out.
By then, word had spread of Eileen Whitmore’s remains found in her bathroom atop an open toilet, half of her in the piss water. There was talk of a strange oil oozing from her body and on her skin. Nothing had been mentioned of such things with any of the other victims. A sheriff from the city came with a handful of his best officers. In hand was the autopsy statement for Miriam Cunningham’s husband, and as it turned out, remarkably unlike Elenore Kuntz, he had ethanol both in and all over his charred remains. What was initially made as suspicion of foul play on Miriam’s part quickly dissolved as word spread that Scott Marab’s charbroiled corpse also had large amounts of ethanol in and outside of his body. There was talk about Elenore’s curse leaving traces of a substance that could be mistaken for the chemicals found on Mr. Cunningham and Scott’s remnants. The townsfolk believed it – the Devil is a clever foe. The city sheriff did not. The lawful consensus boiled down to premeditated murders. Though it was noted that Elenore’s death was ruled as a result of “natural causes” and her demise held no bearing to what were now called murders. Eileen Whitmore’s body was taken for examination. Fingerprints, previously uncollected, were now part of the investigation. It only made sense that the townsfolk questioned how Elenore’s death was natural, and the others were not.
It was Lester Goodwin who first claimed to see Elenore Kuntz roaming the cemetery at Emmanuel Lutheran Church one late Sunday evening. It was followed by other folks claiming her specter was seen walking down the street she lived, looking for her home – or even her next victim. More stories trickled in of Elenore floating outside of their windows or haunting their dreams. Miraculously, during the high tide of Elenore sightings, the burnings stopped.
The city sheriff called a town meeting at the elementary school gymnasium. Eileen Whitmore’s autopsy results showed signs of ethanol both in and outside of her body. It appeared as though the townsfolks were burning its own people to prove that Elenore’s curse was real. The fingerprints did not match anyone in the police database. It was an inside job with a lot of suspects – “no doubt about it,” the sheriff said.
“What of Elenore’s death? How was it natural?” asked Betty Brumfield.
The sheriff said it was a fair question. He did not get to see young Elenore’s body, but the autopsy report did not have a similar pattern of burning that the last three bodies had. Elenore’s seemed to generate from within. There were no chemicals in or on her body – not even on her carpet. Her death was seemingly as natural as a fever – burning from the inside and making its way out. Unexplainable.
An investigation would ensue. But first, they needed to find Colleen Furth. Sweeps near the heavily forested river happened daily. It was a place no one ventured. It was less than a mile from town. It was said to hold powers and creatures that no one dared go near. I knew Colleen well enough to know she’d never go there. A mob of men (mostly local bible-thumping farmers and what my mother called “rednecks”) searching the river came back in a panicked huff of fear that soon morphed into testosterone-fueled anger. They found gutted animals, mostly cats and rabbits, hanging from trees. There were pentagrams and candles under the bloody and mutilated sacrifices – the phrase “Devil worshipping” echoed into the streets from every phone receiver and listening ear. The sheriff was wrong. This was Elenore’s place of witchcraft.
The sheriff and his team asked the mob to calm down and have a beer at the Rooster while he and his men looked. It was near the banks, deep in the back of the forest. They wouldn’t make it before nightfall, but they had to see if Colleen was there. They found nothing that would indicate Colleen had been at the river. There were footprints, both human and animal alike – too hard to know who or what had been there before the townsmen arrived, but the hanging cats and rabbits had been there a while, a couple of weeks, maybe months. The death smell was gone, what remained hanging was dried up and all fur. When an officer called, “over here” to the sheriff, he showed what appeared to be a key. Not too old or exceptional. A standard, made-at-the-hardware-store house key. Brass maybe. It had a single Mickey Mouse keychain. None of this was disclosed to the townsfolk at the time, but when the sheriff came back early the next morning, my mother and I were at the post office. She was at his car before he opened the door, my hand gripped tightly in hers. I saw the keychain dangling from his right hand. “That’s Colleen’s,” I said. “She wore it on her fanny pack.”
Initially, the sheriff kept mum about discovering the key near the banks of the river and asked me and my mother not to mention it to anyone. What he told his men, what he later told us, was the only way to catch a liar was with a better lie. He kept his cool, let a few days pass and then asked Ms. Ruby at the Shepherd Store to hang the key with some Scotch tape on the public bulletin board. He had removed the Mickey Mouse keychain. There were no takers for a few days, but at 3 p.m., on the third day, when the video store owner, Lynette Groskopf walked across the street and into the store for some milk, she noticed the taped key and took it off the board. There was a black star made on the back of the face with a permanent marker. “My key,” she claimed. “Where did you find it?” She had lost it weeks ago. Luckily her husband had a spare set, or they’d be locked out of their own home. Ms. Ruby lied and said she discovered the key just outside of the store.
The sheriff wasted no time – didn’t even retrieve a warrant. They went to Homer Davis Road, to the Groskopf residence, and kicked the rickety wooden door in while the couple tended to their video store. It was seemingly normal, pleasant, and simple upstairs. There was a quaint living room with a color TV, clown figurines inside of a China cabinet, a painting of dogs smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and playing pool. The dining room had pink, artificial flowers in a turquoise vase atop a wooden table. The kitchen had a pea-green refrigerator, emerald-green Formica countertops, dark wood cabinetry, and a triangular fluorescent light highlighting a beige breadbox tucked into the corner counter, and a floral water pitcher with cattails lingering on top of the fridge. The house was quiet and suitable – not overly clean nor inviting, but insincere.
It was the smell that led them to the root cellar of the home – the all-too-familiar smell of burned death, cat urine and animal shit. The cellar did not have light nor heat, nor heart, even of the artificial kind. It was a ruin of exposed brick, broken and rotting pieces of lumber and furniture. The air felt wet and heavy, decay and fear swirling as though it was the breath of an unseen force. Small wire kennels lined a wall filled with cats, dogs, and chickens—some dead, some alive, but barely. A black, long-haired buck goat with large, sloping horns angled to his back stood in a corner surrounded by hay.
Upon the fragmented cement floor was a large pentagram, candles, Coke bottles filled with blood, bottles of ethanol, and the burned body of Colleen Furth. The video store was a lure and the couple, so quaint and unassuming, offered to let Colleen borrow any movie she wanted, any time she wanted. Colleen did and had, and one day, while looking for a new film to review, Mr. Groskopf took her to their home.
Mr. Cunningham, Scott Marab, Eileen Whitmore, Colleen Furth, even the small animals at the river had all been sacrifices to their own dark Lord. Every death, every drop of blood spilled in the name of the Devil was their way to spill the blood of the Holy Son. This was their unconsecrated sacrament and mockery of Jesus Christ – “The body of Lucifer burning for you,” they cried as they slit the throats of their victims and poured ethanol down their gullets and on their skin. “The blood of innocent spilled for our father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and so shall we be.” They even screamed it into the clean air as they were hauled from the video store and into squad cars. The blue sky and chirping birds took no notice of the evil on the ground, but their insidious words bathed the town in trepidation.
The townsfolk were right, Satan had come to our town dressed as two old-timers living out their glory days – but not as Elenore Kuntz. It was the burning of Elenore Kuntz that drew the couple to town, or as it was speculated, they caused it in the first place. The beginning was as murky as Elenore’s death. There were no logical answers, no perfect bowtie that explained what happened first or how. It just was. The Groskopf’s were arrested and convicted on four counts of first-degree murder and sent to separate penitentiaries. They confessed it all – happily. There wasn’t even a trial.
Our town never seemed normal again. The plague of what happened left a stain on the soil, the buildings, and the townsfolk. The home on Homer Davis remained vacant, as did the Kuntz home. Those empty dwellings, along with the river, became totems of what happened. Never forgotten and never remembered, existing only as legend. The town of Shepherd became haunted by its own people, and every now and again, a glimpsing of Elenore Kuntz.