The winter surrounding Norfield church was obstinate and calm. Footprints pressed in a half foot of snow stayed in place for days. A wind blew enough to carry pockets of powdered frost from distant evergreen woods far over to the canals and cracks of the stone church. Somehow the land seemed to focus on the church, or so the man thought as he entered it.
Norfield was a modest town, an oddity, with a population of one man. His were the footprints that led from the church gates to the supermarket, its doors agape exposing long rotted away collections of produce and plundered shelves of canned goods. Then he trailed toward a snow blanketed pile of rubble and ashen wood where splintered beams and cinderblocks weighed down on him. Day by day, his shallow tracks variably snaked to lean deserted residences, those that weren’t collapsed or iced over. Most had been so long unattended they appeared as icy stalagmites pointing to an absolute absence. Norfield days were gray, and the nights were void; the stars and the moon did not shine upon a place of such abandon.
As the Norfield Man opened the wooden church doors, he paused and inspected the mural carved upon them. It was colorless, but given dimension by frost imbedded around its every crevice. At the archway’s apex, rays of light shone over angels gallivanting from the heavens. There were so many on the door and they were so small, but nonetheless detailed with flowing hair and toothy smiles. From the heavens they brought the gift of God’s ways to a layer of etched trees and fields where festive men reached excitedly toward heaven in a suspended state of dance. A leg kicked high, necks contorted joyously, arms pitched about awkwardly, but all reaching upward—Were it so simple, thought the Norfield Man, if only all would accept and commit themselves to God with such devotion. In their praise they were tireless; the Norfield Man admired that. Conceived from chisel and plank, each and all of them had celebrated God from decade to decade, and they would continue so long as the door stood whole. They would never touch hands with the angels above them. Stuck in that wood, the angels would never fully descend to greet man, and the men would never be granted death to ascend to the heavens. It was a fixed state that the Norfield Man had observed to a point of study. But nothing concerned him more than the base of the door.
Along its bottom sat engravings of hell. Not a half foot high, the minute and subversive piece of the portrait boiled beneath man’s ground. It so frequently dominated the Norfield Man’s thoughts. Menacing eyes in a conglomeration of spikes and coils were emboldened by more thickly carved lines in the wood. And so it was emboldened in the Norfield Man’s mind. That half-foot of hell was as static as the rest of the image. It would always be there, hungering for beings of sin. Only one droplet of sinful blood was required to pervert one’s veins and flood corruption through the chambers of a virtuous heart.
“Total devotion,” the Norfield man muttered as he kicked his shoes lightly at the ground to knock off snow. As he passed the doors he thumbed their intricate bordering and started to pull them shut.
“Can you achieve it? Can anybody?”
The angels, dancing devotees, and short inferno closed behind him, snuffing out what little daylight managed to sneak into the church on the back of the frosty breeze. The Norfield Man turned his gaze to the hall, bordered by so many benches and dimly lit by a cracked ceiling and occasional candles. The glory of the place was gone—but not to him. It was ancient. Without upkeep, statues and stone crumbled, wood turned rotten, walls collapsed. Yet the sanctuary stood.
Down the center aisle, between the pews closest to the altar, was a girl in chains. She wore a coat inflated and lined with synthetic fur. Its sleeves were rolled halfway to her elbows displaying fully that she was cuffed at the wrists to benches on her either side. Her arms unwillingly lazed over her head. Her legs half-dangled against the floor. The chains held her in a tortuous stance, too high to sit and too low to stand. The worn corners of her eyes stung at the drafty winter’s touch as it drifted by. Specks of anguish ran parallel to her charcoal forelocks and came to rest on her cheeks and in the wrinkles of her eyelids.
Through misty eyes, she had only the hall and statues to look at. Carved arches and stands along the length of the sanctuary were empty; their contents had become an audience. Mostly angelic figures, they were immaculately carved but eerie with age. They crept, scattered in the dimness among the benches. Some were turned to face her with their chipped noses and glazed, rocky eyes—though they could not rival the Norfield Man’s glares, so unreadable, black. Closest to the girl was a woman in plain robes looking directly to the altar, caressing a baby against its bosom. A few rows ahead, to the girl’s left, a statue had its wings splayed, barely fitting between the rows of pews. It thrust a short sword into the dry air, pointing toward a central foot-wide gap in the roof through which snow slipped by in the low winds.
She had spent the last two days averting her eyes then frighteningly examining the figures, occasionally glaring down the candlelight mottled hall with mixed hope and dread that the doors would open. Grown tired of it all she’d closed her eyes. Ignoring the raspy voice at the doors, she imagined better things.
She thought of being embraced by sunlight, about getting warm woodland gunk and loose soil stuck between her toes. She recalled the faces of her mother and her young brothers who she’d not seen for over a month. For a moment, she could ignore the chill of Norfield.
Back home… in time, I’ll make it-
And then her daydreams were cut short.
The Norfield Man’s voice echoed through the church, beating out the draft and deepening the dimness.
“The people abandoned this place,” he began. “You abandoned this place.”
The girl had heard this too many times already. Each day she felt less threatened and more agitated.
“It’s been days. Can you just tell me whatever the hell you want from me?” She beckoned down the hall.
The Norfield Man started to reply but the girl did not stop speaking.
“And it’s damn cold here. Could I have another coat? Please?”
“I desire nothing from you. As a child of God, you are obligated to realize divine truths. Should you cooperate, I may find you another coat.”
The Norfield man began his daily interrogation. His words hoofed down the hall with such slow excitement it sounded almost as if he would begin to sing.
“Why do not the trees grow? Where now have the birds gone? Why does not even the night sky dare face this place?”
“I do not know.”
Her voice used to shake when confronted by the man, but the cyclical days brought her to hint sarcasm.
“Yes, you do,” the Norfield Man snapped as he started down the hall.
He reached an overturned shoe she had kicked off in a frenzy the day prior and pushed it back toward her.
“You know the land. Know it well… watched it change. Will you continue to be quarrelsome, or will you answer me today?”
For the first day of her confinement, she was violent and profane. The Norfield Man let her be for that time. He also abstained from feeding her. The second day she was calm but equally uncooperative.
She gave him a troubled look.
“Last I was here, I was a kid. I can barely remember… I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“But you have seen the town now. And you knew it well enough then. Tell me, why did you leave? Why have you returned?”
Confinement was getting the better of her. For the first time in three days she answered plainly and truthfully.
“I didn’t choose to leave. My family left because everybody else was leaving. There was nothing left.”
The Norfield Man was insulted.
“Nothing? This place is nothing to you?”
The girl returned with an antagonistic smirk.
“It is a shame, truly,” the Norfield Man slowed his words and came closer to the girl, “You have no desire to grasp truth. Maybe I ought to fast you again.”
“No, no, no, no, no,” she rattled her chains lightly. “I’ll listen to you better, I promise. I’m sorry.”
He said, “I do not want you to listen. I want you to learn. Act out God’s will.”
The Norfield Man turned from her and left to another room.
Act? Just how am I supposed to act while I’m in chains? What is wrong with you? The girl kept the thought to herself. It was unwise to continue testing the Norfield Man’s limits. Aside from capture and imprisonment, and that day of starvation, he hasn’t tried to hurt me. I guess I can be grateful for that. She hated that line of thought, searching for some microscopic positive. But, at the time, it was all she had.
The Norfield Man returned moments later with a bowl of soup and carrots, potatoes, and small hunks of beef. He set it on a lean stool before her and moved it into reach of her head. That was all she ever ate. The depraved land, for years, was unable to render crops. Decade-old cans were the only thing in town.
When the locals fled Norfield, wolves and deer, hawks and rabbits—creatures living only to serve natural cycles—claimed the land; however, they, too, were driven out after a time. Something like tendrils took hold in the church at the heart of the town, and it pierced outward through the land expunging its every decency. Soil turned gray and flaky. Greenery shriveled and died. The land was alone in a continuous chill. The only pure life that remained, remained in chains.
A long awaited bed greeted the eyes of a young woman who had come home from a ruthless day’s work. Finally back in her room, littered with clothes, binders, books, food wrappings, and bottles, she felt an accomplished exhaustion. Work had not been hard on her; she had been hard on it. Scrapes ran around her elbows and hands. She had nicks in her jeans and was overlaid with a blend of pollen, dirt, and sweat. But she had taken some damned good pictures.
She reached for the strap of the camera strewn around her neck and pulled it from under her hair and over her head, knocking loose some small leaves and dandelion seeds. She picked up a stray shirt, one of many, and wiped muddy fingerprints and encrusted earthy goo from her camera before setting it on her nightstand.
She looked over her shoulder to a half opened bathroom door, thought for a moment, and sighed before leaning into a deserved collapse onto her bed. Sinking through layers of sheets and pillows, she drowned in dreariness.
Then she awoke in her chains at the sound of the Norfield Man opening the church doors.
That was all she thought of it. God dammit was all that waking into captivity warranted anymore. It was standard after only four days—and that scared the life out of her. So, she tried not to think about it. For all the fury she exhibited upon her first wake—how she shook her braces until her wrists were raw—she had reached something of an acceptance. It was the only way to stay sane. It was her only way to live.
As the Norfield Man closed the mural doors, she looked to her chains. Bolted into the thick wood pews, she was assured that she would lose her arms before she was able to pull free. The menacing still statues reassured her as well. Harmless, she knew, but disheartening in their empty stares.
Bed. The thought returned for a moment. How long had it been since she was able to lie? Lie, she fantasized. Captivity redefined luxury. Hard wintry stone would be comfortable enough, were she able to rest on her back. Suspended as she was, such thoughts only brought her more pain. So she pushed them from her mind and, for the first time, spoke out to the Norfield Man as he entered.
“Did you get me another coat?”
She could not cut her sarcastic tone.
“May I have it?”
“We will see.”
The girl’s eyes became inflamed, but she stifled herself. Cooperate. There’s no gain in pissing him off.
The Norfield Man strode down the hall and, for the fourth day in a row, questioned her.
“Tell me, girl, why do the wells freeze shut? Why do thick clouds muddy the sky? Why has every virtue fled this place?”
The girl began picking up the subtleties of his voice. His questions were somehow accusatory. Asking them brought him distress.
“For the last time, I don’t have your answers. Why do you keep asking me? Why are you keeping me here!?”
The Norfield Man attempted to stop her sputtering.
“You know more than you think, girl.”
“And just what is with these statues?” she kept on, “Can you at least turn some of them away from me?”
“Statues… no. They are angels and saints—pious, divine… blessed.”
As the Norfield Man detoured to the statue with splayed wings, the girl quieted.
“They have mentored me as they will you. Study them. Worship them and God’s guidance will come to surface from the bog of your mind.”
He traced the stone feathered left wing with a cautious veiny hand.
“Were it that we could fly away from our problems. But as did Michael, we should fly to them. Confront them,” The Norfield Man resumed his walk toward the girl with an emphatic glare. His eyes opened wider with the slightest hint of contentment, and he breathed firm and evenly as if his reverence calmed him.
“Yesterday, you spoke of flight. Why did the flight happen? Why did so many abandon Norfield together?”
What the hell is he getting at?
“Because of the burnings… the hospital,” she said, “Right? Because there was nothing left.”
Nothing, the Norfield Man thought. Will she ever learn?
“Sure,” he said, “But why did it burn?”
Will it ever end!? Her confused mind turned to boil. Why, why, why? These stupid questions! Not knowing what to say, she looked him firmly in his wide sockets and stayed quiet.
The Norfield Man mirrored her silence. His more comfortable look faded to disappointment, and he left to prepare some food. When he returned with the usual bowl of canned vegetables and beef, he lingered longer than usual. The interrogations had, until then, been brief. The first day, she flamed up, cursing and swinging in her bindings. She quickly exceeded the Norfield Man’s patience and so he simply left her. The second, she was hesitant to say anything. Yesterday was different, though. At least, to the Norfield Man. While the girl lived through another agitating interrogation, the Norfield Man finally witnessed compliance. Now he was communicating with her more clearly, without her temper lashing at or refusing him.
The Norfield Man stood quietly, hunching with a slow progression as he watched the girl lean to slurp her soup. He spoke somberly through his decades-old beard.
“Did you attend this church when you were young?”
“Sometimes,” she replied, soup steam wafting from her lips. “Christmas, Easter—a few traditions, but my family isn’t very religious.”
“As were so many. Do you feel no shame in your disregard of God?”
“Just because we didn’t squeeze into your hovel every weekend doesn’t make us bad people.”
“You needn’t be a bad person to feel shame.”
“Is that how you comfort yourself?”
Her words slipped out with ire but she wouldn’t waste the energy with shouts.
“When you think about keeping a girl chained and underfed against the cold stone tiles of a decaying church, is that how you somehow think that your senselessness is right?”
“Few things in this world have ever been right. That is why we entrust ourselves to God and respect his every judgment.”
Three feet of snow fell on Norfield one long forgotten holiday and, while roadways sat inoperable, almost all of its devoted residents made the trek to church on foot. From any reach of town there were footprints trailing inward to the central church, creating a speckled star-like design on the face of the land. Even with all doors and windows shut, incoming late arrivals could hear clearly the enthusiastic preaching of the pastor who would later thank each churchgoer excessively for their attendance in spite of the weather.
“The worth of this community cannot be weighed in wealth or material,” the pastor cried out to his enthralled townspeople. “Love and goodness is the currency of this town! And that love you show to your fellow man, God notices it, and he smiles upon us. We are truly blessed to live at the behest of such divinity, to live our lives in God’s vision.”
At that time, Norfield was tiny. But it grew quickly.
A decade passed; Norfield grew denser—it bustled with local business. It was that modest place that exhausted city folk so desired to retire in. Five years more, a nearby university had garnered some attention, and an ambitious hospital was under construction. The town expanded further and, after the hospital’s completion, became something of a medical icon. Norfield was a haven for the ill alongside the healers.
A voice cracked through an open door as the pastor wandered hospital halls.
“Would you pray with me, pastor?”
He nodded and came to the patient’s bedside to join him.
The patient was interrupted by his own violent cough.
“You needn’t speak for him to hear your words,” the pastor said.
“Disease will not dull me.”
The young man’s voice was rugged, as was his body. He closed his eyes and clasped his hands over his chest while he lay.
“Dear lord, I thank you for watching over my family. I am blessed to be treated with such care in my illness…”
After a moment and a few bouts of weak coughing, he concluded.
“Millworker?” The pastor inquired. “Workers around the whole region are coming in with bad lungs.”
“Close. I’m from a bit farther north. Got black lung from the mines.”
“You’ll not find better hands than here. You’re strong, boy. You’ll pull through. Docs will take good care of you, and God is with you. Should you require anything, you only need to ask.”
The pastor roamed the hospital regularly to bring the ill comfort and assurance of God’s care. But, as the years passed, the patients changed—the town changed. More often his services were turned down. Less people wanted divine assurance because their doctors assured them enough. And, when he would meet occasional provokers, they insisted he was dishonest—as if he had something to gain through prayer other than closeness to God—and refuse that his presence at the hospital should be permitted at all. The pastor would never engage them. He would turn away and go on searching for somebody that would accept his aid.
A Christmas day so many years later, without a flake of snow fallen, let alone a cloud in the sky, the pastor’s crowd had thinned. He looked over a patchy audience of elderly folk who’d failed to bring their full families, even on that most holy day. Grown quite old, the pastor was as active as he could be. He was a frequent guest at the nearby college, and continuously comforted the few faithful ill at the hospital. But, it was not enough. For better or for worse, the decades brought with them great change. And, as the pastor went on, his benevolent and hopeful sermons became wrought with disappointment and distrust.
“The once sanctified people entwined through this town as a holy knitting have unfurled into a heretical heap!”
He spat disgustedly to a congregation of ghosts. His people had moved on or moved into new lives.
One summer night, the sweltering haze that loomed over Norfield exploded into a hellish crimson. A shopping center in the heart of the town, home to a few clothing outlets, a round the clock fast food shack, a hobby shop, a gym, and a bar, were systematically consumed by fire.
Four people were killed.
A mother of two, 47, was trapped in a gym bathroom after rushing in to warn others about the fire.
An IT servicewoman, 26, who was one year from finishing her master’s was crushed beneath the crumbling ceiling of a bar.
A father and daughter, 36 and 12, were evaporated in a gas explosion from beneath the parking lot.
Some townsfolk feared the devilish act of arson and planned to leave town. But, the morning after, shaken by tragedy, many of them turned to God.
“Why did this happen to us?”
Church attendees begged for an answer.
“What in Norfield could have warranted such tragedy?”
The pastor could not satisfy them, he could only offer faith. There was no divine atonement for the horrors exacted upon Norfield.
Through a revitalized church community, charities were formed to aid the families struck by the disaster. The pastor saw great success. He witnessed selflessness among his people as they rebound themselves to God and to each other. But less than half a year later, the infernal night became but a memory. The pastor once again watched his people fade from God.
While much of the shopping center remained as cracked rubble longing to be cleaned up and rebuilt, the night sky was again illuminated by hellfire.
Those on the far side of town awoke to news that the hospital had burned to the ground, extinguishing three hundred souls. Patients, visitors, doctors, janitors, a pizza deliverer, a children’s clown, a plumber, a high school football hotshot—every family, every person in Norfield felt fatality blaze through their lives.
A once glowing construct of hope had been reduced to no more than a pile. Pilgrims of medicine and science had lost their icon and so halted their visits. Norfield’s central employer was lost, as were its citizens, defeated by sorrow.
That fire shook Norfield apart. Those that dared search for answers met only disappointment. As people trickled from the town the pastor turned wrathful. When the sinners refused to come to him, he took to the streets to chastise abandoners.
“You think yourselves escaping from hell, but you’re creeping ever closer—abandoning your homes, your people, God, with such selfish haste!”
Thus the people distanced themselves from him further. They left Norfield, upset and afraid.
Months scraped by and the town thinned greatly. A year later, it was barren. A few years after, nature returned to have its way with the land—but some of it was chased away by that cirrus evil at the church. The only remainder was the pastor, once a fine preacher, turned an aphotic soul who could never forgive his people’s abandonment.
A few more years passed and only then did a visitor come to town. She came for the history, to explore and document a place once so respected and renowned that had become so vastly forgotten. A thick coat weighed down by a dense green backpack, and a fat lensed camera around her neck, she trotted into the timeworn town.
The Norfield Man observed the church doors, the half-foot of hell dominating the otherwise resplendent mural. He kicked snow from his shoes and entered the church.
“Come to question me again?” the girl beckoned underneath a second, less bulky coat. “It’s useless. Can you let me go already? It’s been, what, five days? Six? Seriously, what do you want?”
“It matters not how long it has been, only that you find truth in God.”
As the Norfield Man walked to the girl, she flashed her eyes his way, annoyed but silent.
He began, “You do know this place. You knew it well before our meeting, but you refuse to answer and realize truth… Why such cold? Why do the rivers run lifeless? Why is even the sun itself kept hidden from this land?”
“Because it is hell,” she said dryly.
Why don’t I answer you, she thought, Why the hell don’t you ever answer me?
“You know naught of Hell.”
The Norfield Man’s brow quivered with an anger the girl had never before witnessed. For a second, his fists tightened as well.
The girl kicked at the stone beneath her.
“I’m living it,” she screeched. “You think you’re so damned grand in this crumbling church. Well, it’s no more than a stain!”
“This—this is hell? This divine palace?” His voice carried an ounce of the girl’s derision. Then it deepened her into a pit. “Insolent! I have seen Hell. I have watched it consume sinners by scores! I have lived it, not you! Should you continue to be so uncooperative, you may witness it yet.”
The girl stared, taken aback by the Norfield Man’s new fierceness.
“You have seen hell?”
The girl attempted to spit but her mouth was too dry.
“If you want to take me there, do it! Anything will be better than these fucking chains!”
She pushed from the floor trying to stand and break her bindings. Her arms stretched and her shoulders pulled at her frozen muscles painfully until she fell, coughing with exhaustion.
She cried, some from the pain, but mostly from everything else. Her tired heart beat against her lungs, which wrenched as she stiffly inhaled icy air. Tears bit at her cheeks as they ran to her chin. She reflexively pulled her arms to rub her eyes, but the chains did not allow her to reach so far. She pulled on them, continuing the hopeless strain. Every other droplet was pushed from her eyes with fear or fury as her mind raced around her confinement.
“Whatever Hell you have seen, you’ve never suffered this,” she wept.
“I have seen hell sweep this town time and again, and its horrors cursed the land. I would never will it to happen again.”
The frantic and fearful glint in the girl’s eyes turned to pure terror.
“You did it… you lit the fires… the hospital.”
The Norfield Man’s eyes mimicked her terror, but his brow leveled with relief.
Her lips shuddered as she looked to his undenying face.
“How could— they were your people, your neighbors… My neighbors!”
She was confused, distraught, but rageful. Fallen as far as her chains would allow, she screamed plainly, without words. She took no time to breathe and struggled to think. Her body tensed as she cried out at her isolation. The nothingness in and around the church listened meekly until her throat could muster no more.
The Norfield Man watched her yelps fade to whimpers. He then left apathetically to the side room. When he returned with a familiar steaming bowl, he left it on the regular stool and closed in on the girl. He reached into the neck of his robe and revealed a key.
The Norfield Man uncuffed the girl.
Her left arm was free. It fell loosely to the ground, bruising the side of her hand. Stuck in those chains for such a time, putting it down was foreign.
Her right arm was free. She held her head as she continued to sob in confused dread. Her body fell and curled on the floor.
What is— I’m going to die.
The Norfield Man’s words were brisk.
“Armed with truth, you can now act out God’s judgment.”
He turned his back and walked for the church doors.
“And, eat. You mustn’t starve.”
The girl sat up weakly.
The Norfield Man paused at the doors and turned to face her—disheartened to find her unmoved. Curled, still crying. He pulled open the doors and walked into the frigid open air, wondering when his judgment would come. Were he young and spry, with a naïve and small hope, he might have danced alongside the timber men in the mural, preparing joyously to meet whatever, for him, lay beyond.
Near an hour gone by, the girl dragged herself along fragmenting stone tiles to her soup. She passed a few nervous glances to the angelic statues, then quickly came to ignore them. Everything else—freedom, living—was more important.
For the remainder of the day, she lay on a pew. It was hard and slim, but she chose one most detached from the looming statues. Briefly, she looked at the dilapidated ceiling. Then only the backs of her eyelids.
The following day, she brought her weak body to the side room, scavenging for food. As expected—more soup—but a meager three cans. While she prepared a bowl, she rediscovered her backpack and camera sitting on a countertop.
Another day of eating and rest passed before she would cautiously approach the church doors. The Norfield Man had not returned.
When she finally left through the mural doors, he was waiting for her in a small courtyard at the base of the church stairs. She was scared. The Norfield Man looked stern as always, unwavering in the fierce cold.
“I did not free you to somehow bring you more hurt, girl.”
She looked at him skeptically as she began to shamble down the wide stairway.
“I will not leave.”
“What?” The girl questioned.
“I will remain here with the sins of this town until I die…”
That may not be too long, she thought, examining the deep wrinkles in his face that matched his old robes. There’s barely even any food in this place.
“…or God’s judgment brings some punishment to me.”
The girl stared at him blankly a final time before she began her journey home. She hoped she remembered where she had parked her truck before she made the hike over the unkempt icy roadways that led to Norfield.
She made the hardest decision that she would ever have to make during that walk. She decided that, when she got away, when she finally reached home, she would keep the incident entirely secret. I ran out of gas in the woods. My cellphone had no reception, then it died and I had to rough it for a few days. That was what happened. Uncomplicated. Believable.
She would breathe no more life into the Norfield Man’s religious delusions. He would live out what little time he had in a lonely cycle, trapped with his crimes against God and man, awaiting death. For him, there was no greater punishment than awaiting the judgment.
The girl, having chosen not to judge at all, was finally free.