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Author's note: This story was inspired by the song, "Lyke Wake Dirge." More about this song can be found here.

"This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule."

As the voices floated into his ears, darkness was all that surrounded Matthias. Women? Singing? Where? Beside him? Over him? Their mournful tune was one he vaguely knew, but could not place.

A strange sensation moved over him, as if he were lying on his back and rising slowly out of the stillest, warmest pool. A chilled breeze swept across his skin, and Matthias felt his body was his to control once more.

Slowly, he opened his eyes and found himself staring upward at a magnificent sky filled with stars. The Milky Way cut across it and the moon hung full and bright. When Matthias had had his fill of the glorious heavens, he sat up to survey his surroundings. A flat green field stretched out in all directions, terminating at a distant treeline. The scents of earth and grass rose to his nostrils. Where was this place, and how had he come to be there?

Something moved off to the right. Matthias caught it in the corner of his eye and turned to see a figure standing far off, nearly one with the treeline. The sight brought a shiver with it. Even at a distance, Matthias could see the visitor was uncommonly tall. It appeared to be clad in a flowing, white shroud, and both this and the figure itself swayed and moved as if it were standing at the bottom of a river.

The sight of the figure unnerved Matthias, and yet he could not deny that this man or woman, whomever it may be, seemed perfectly at ease. The gentle motion of their body gave no suggestion of panic or alarm. Indeed, it seemed to Matthias that this figure, in a way, belonged here. The thought brought him comfort. Perhaps this stranger could shed some light on his situation.

Matthias pulled himself to his feet and called out. “You, there! You! May I speak with you?”

The figure turned slowly to face him. Matthias, awestruck, fell back down to his knees. Before him was no less a personage that his dear Lord, the Savior of all mankind. The sight of that placid smile, even at this great distance, brought involuntary tears to Matthias’ eyes. His lips moved without effort, and out came the Lord’s Prayer. As line after line tumbled from Matthias, joy thumped harder and harder in his chest until he was sure he would burst. At last, he finished with a wholehearted, “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever! Amen!”

The Savior silently bowed his head, as if to acknowledge Matthias’ gift of prayer. Then, he opened his mouth to speak. “And the eyes of them both were opened,” he said. “And they knew that they were naked.”

An icy gust of wind suddenly struck out at Matthias. He reached for a cloak to wrap around himself but found nothing. Looking down, he could clearly see for the first time that he stood completely bare before the Lord.

Hot shame burned in his cheeks. “My Lord,” Matthias said, “forgive me that I should appear this way before you. If I could but find some clothes to wear, I should be much better prepared for this meeting.”

The Savior nodded, and with a flourish of his hand, directed Matthias’ gaze downward. There, several feet away from him, lay pairs of breeches, hose, and shoes. Had they always been there? Matthias had not noticed them before. No, surely this must have been some miracle, a gift for him directly from the holy hands of God.

The Savior spoke. “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was naked, and ye clothed me.”

Matthias rose and stepped toward the waiting gift, but faltered. A vision suddenly overtook him, as a net overtakes its captive. He saw himself, strolling down an alley, as he often did. His purse was heavy about his waist, as it often was. Upon remembering this, he silently thanked his God for such blessings.

As the vision played out, a woman stepped out of the shadows. She was filthy, bent, and clutched her rags about her. Matthias remembered her well. The woman held out a hand and begged, “Good sir, can you spare a few coins for a poor woman? My little ones are all but naked.”

Matthias watched as his own image took no notice of the woman and coldly passed her by. The woman buried her face in her hands, and the vision faded.

Matthias found himself once more before the clothing laid out on the ground. The figure of his God still loomed in the distance. Shame stabbed at Matthias’ heart, but what could he do? Were he given another opportunity, he would choose differently, but what was done was done. How could he change it now? Unless….

Warmth of a different kind filled Matthias. A new and delicious thought bloomed within him. Why would his God have shown him such a memory unless it meant he was forgiven? Yes, that must be the reason! The lightness he suddenly felt nearly set him dancing. He shouted his thanks to the Lord and stepped toward the clothing in earnest.

Matthias landed face down in the grass. It took him a moment to regain his breath. When he did, he looked over at his ankle and saw that it had somehow become entangled in a thick, thorny root. He could not recall seeing anything like it since awaking in this place. All attempts to shake himself loose proved fruitless. On the contrary, they only scraped the thorns against his flesh. Matthias winced with every prick and nearly sickened at the sight of his ankle stained with red.

Suddenly, all at once, many more thorny roots sprang from the ground on all sides. Matthias tried to move away swiftly, the root that snared his ankle held firm. Horrified, he watched as the roots animated and wrapped themselves tightly around his naked body. Thorns dug into his arms, legs, back, and stomach. He wriggled against them, causing each to stab deeper into his flesh and release the crimson blood beneath.

At last, he wrestled a hand free, and with it attempted to pull himself out of the thorny trap toward the garments. He knew they could offer him at least some protection if he could only reach them and put them on. As he struggled, the thorns cut deeper and deeper. He howled in pain as they plunged deep inside of him and scraped against his bones. Over his screams, the voices of the singing women floated softly.

"If hosen and shoon thou ne'er gav'st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The thorns shall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule."

So this was to be his penance, then. He whimpered against the anger that bubbled within him. Was his crime really so great that he deserved such torment? He glanced once again at his distant Lord and softened. Who was he, he wondered, to decide what was fair and just in the eyes of God? If God saw fit to inflict this punishment upon him, then so be it.

With new resolve, he pulled harder at the earth with his free hand. Finally, he seemed to be making some progress. The barbs scratched and scraped at his flesh as, inch by inch, he pulled his way to freedom.

When at last he was free of the roots and their spines, Matthias simply let his body fall. There he lay for a long while, breathing in the soothing scent of grass. Just as he began to think he might never want to move again, a strange roaring noise startled him into action.

Matthias lifted his head and marveled. The field, clothing, and treeline were gone. Instead, he found himself lying at the approach to a long bridge. Red-orange light flickered from beneath it. Matthias’ heart sank as he realized the source of the roaring. Flames. On the other side of the bridge stood his Savior, beckoning to him.

The women’s voices came again.

"From thorny-muir whence thou may'st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o' Dread thou com'st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule."

Matthias’ vision was clouded once again by memory. Again he saw himself, this time seated at his table, a grand Christmas feast laid out before him. Just as he watched his wife set another dish upon the table, a knocking came from somewhere in the distance. Tears burned in Matthias’ eyes as he watched. He knew what came next.

His image rose from the table and grumbled as it stomped toward the door. He opened it upon a tiny child. It’s face was so gaunt as to make its gender undeterminable, and it shivered against the cold of a winter’s night.

“Sir,” said the child, “can you spare a morsel? My father is dead, and my mother is ill and cannot feed us.”

“It is a likely story, child,” said Matthias’ vision-self with a laugh. “Perhaps you should take up a life on the stage! That will keep you fed!” Before the child could protest, the door was slammed and Matthias was back to his dinner.

All at once, the vision faded. Matthias’ ribs shook with grief and a sob escaped his lips. His eyes met those of his God across the bridge who seemed to regard him with a mix of disappointment and pity.

“I am sorry, Lord!” Matthias shouted. “I am sorry! Forgive me! Oh, please forgive me, Lord! My soul cries out to you! Enfold me in your arms and wash away my sin! Forgive me!”

The fire below the bridge roared with renewed vigor. With a single, silent gesture, the Savior pointed to the bridge. Matthias’ teeth chattered. “No, my Lord, please,” he begged. “I will not. I cannot!”

The God was silent still, unchanging, unmoved.

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“I will fall! Surely!” Matthias cried out. “I know the man I have been! I know I will not be upheld! Please, do not make me cross!” His terror overwhelmed him. He took hold of his knees and pulled himself into a ball. There, he rocked and wept like an orphaned child. “If you could but send me back! Let me live for one year more! One day more! I would change! I would make amends! I would find that woman and clothe her like a queen! I would find that child and feed him until he burst! Please! But send me back!”

Matthias felt the sudden impulse to look up. There, at the other side of the bridge, standing in front of the Savior were two more figures. He knew them instantly, though they were very much changed from when he saw them last. One was the woman. Now she stood straight and was draped elegantly in a flowing white robe. The other, the child, was similarly dressed, and his cheeks were full and rosy. Matthias’ pain sharpened. Seeing these two in the presence of the Savior could only mean one thing.

Before he could renew his weeping, the figures stepped onto the bridge. It rattled and swayed under their weight, but held firm. They seemed unaware of the danger as they took slow, steady steps toward Matthias. Guilt and shame turned to panic. He pulled himself up off the ground and spun around.

There, directly in front of him, were the judging eyes of his God. This sudden appearance startled Matthias so he staggered backward. His second step landed on only air and he found himself tumbling.

Matthias’ word slowed. He was aware and conscious of every second of his agonizing fall. His pitiful wails stretched upward toward the three mournful faces above him. Against his back, the flames burned hotter and hotter and crackled loudly for their next bit of fuel. Somehow, the women’s voices cut through it all.

"If meat or drink thou ne'er gav'st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule."

Written by Jdeschene
Content is available under CC BY-SA