Twelfth Night

by Jonathan Edward McDonald

My dearest Blanche—

That is how educated men once prefaced their letters, is it not? The endearment given to those of the female sex, whether intended as simply a friendly greeting or as a hope for something far deeper and more enduring. Even to another man, it would be “Dear Such-and-Such.” It seems that we once held other people more dear than we do now, or at least we aspired to hold them so.

I write this by hand because I am afraid that if I type it then I will be tempted to go back and make endless edits or to delete the parts which I worry you will read with derision. This story I have to tell you still makes me tremble with the implications.

As you will recall, my dearest Blanche, I have long hosted an annual Twelfth Night party at the apartment with Brian. We insist that guests bring their favorite Christmas drinks and treats to cheer the end of Christmastide. Most of the people who show up are grad students from the university or are (ahem) working hard on their dissertations. The first year we had a gaggle of English students insisting that everyone embody a role from Shakespeare’s play, but they spent half the night explaining the plot, and by the time they were done everybody was so drunk that no one could keep straight who was Viola and who was Olivia.

Our apartment is not large, but we have the small, fenced patio out back that opens onto a courtyard that few residents use except for summer barbecues. I believe it used to be a swimming pool until the management removed it and filled the hole with gravel. The patio is popular with the smokers, who always seem to be English students, but somehow we always manage to fit everyone inside when we reach the midnight Saturnalia.

The complex itself is more interesting than apartment complexes tend to be. I’m told it was built in the 1970s and designed by an architect fresh out of school. He had a head full of faraway nations and ancient civilizations, and he divided the place into six distinct sections. This was in the days when these companies could not afford more than a two-story construction and condos were not yet proliferating like weeds. He designated the sections as French, Spanish, Greek, Egyptian, Indian, and Tudor. We live in the French section, and I suppose you can see the influence if you squint real hard and ignore decades of patchwork that have served the cause of homogeneity. The balconies above us still have the old ironwork rails with their French flourishes and fleurs.

The interior of the apartment is best described as “grad student minimalism.” Brian and I never bothered to paint the walls; who wants to have to paint them back to off-white when we move out? All our furniture is secondhand except for the bookshelves, which we bought for about thirty dollars each at the local mega mart. I was always rather pleased with the green recliner, though, which came not from a thrift store but from a priest professor at the university. We call it the Sacred Seat. The bookshelves are packed with many books bought for classes and even more bought for pleasure. We don’t have much up on the walls except a few Orthodox icons and a television that we use mostly for video games. The cabinet over the sink holds our liquor collection, such as it is, comprised of cheap bourbons, bitters, tonics, and ryes. Oh, and our one novelty bottle of absinthe, which has served us far better as a conversation piece than as a drink.

That is how the apartment appeared when you and your sister showed up on that first Twelfth Night party. We barely said hello. I was too busy pulling out paper plates, mixing cocktails, and keeping the bathroom usable. But… yes, I remember meeting you then. Dark-haired and shy, unsure if you really wanted to be at a party like this.

That was also the night I met Stephen. Quiet fellow, also in the history program like me, but he was a modern student, not medieval. You know how it goes with these academic cliques. The story I have to tell is about Stephen, so I must go into his own history, most of which I have learned only recently.

Stephen Gregors, who never wished to go by “Steve,” was from a well-to-do middle-class family in Indiana. His father was some sort of manager for a pharmaceutical company. I have been to their house. It’s in a private neighborhood and looks expensive and older than my parents, but it is surprisingly small and narrow with very little of a yard. Real woodwork, though. Lots of trees. He was the oldest of three children. His two sisters are both married with kids and live close to their parents. From what his sisters told me, Stephen was always quiet and thoughtful, preferring to read than to spend an evening socializing or partying. They told me that he was always intelligent and private even as a young boy, but that he would easily fly into a temper if something of his possession or in the organization of his bedroom was disturbed. Once he hit his teens, he would sit in his room and read for hours by himself with an angry expression on his face, as if daring anyone to intrude upon his study.

By the time I knew Stephen he was a tall man, a few inches over six feet, with a short haircut and a square-shaped head. He wore thick glasses. Whenever I saw him roaming the stacks of the university library, he was always wearing khakis and a light cross-striped shirt. I think I had seen him once or twice in the chapel, and his clothing style never seemed to alter. He had a perpetually serious look on his face.

I am sure I said hello to Stephen when he arrived on that first Twelfth Night, but I was so occupied with being a good host that I never settled into any one conversation for more than a few minutes. I wonder how you remember meeting me. Was I flustered from being out of my comfort zone? Did I come off as rude? Could I have done any better in your eyes? You seem to have been comfortable enough. Nobody was crudely flirting with you, unless those politics guys started stirring things up the moment my back was turned. Your sister was the social one, and she could hold her own amidst any academic dissemblance.

The structure for the party was intended to be simple. Every hour, the Crown of the Lord of Misrule (constructed carefully out of colored paper from a design loosely adapted from a medieval illuminated manuscript) would be passed along to a new person. Brian wore it first, starting when the guests first darkened our door. The Lord of Misrule is permitted to make sweeping, royal declarations with a bias toward madness and absurdity. The guests are also free to ignore his declarations so long as they can form retorts in iambic pentameter. At eleven o’clock, we pull out the king cake (for which we used a truly terrible fruitcake) and see who finds the King Baby within. The lucky winner is given a white sheet for a robe, a fake beard, and a plastic scythe bought three months earlier. He becomes the great god Saturn, or Father Time, and he recites the Clown’s Song from the play as midnight chimes:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid…

And so on.

We elaborated upon this barebones structure as the years went on, but the basics always remained. Our chosen god Saturn that first year was Stephen, and he accepted his robes and accoutrements with all the dignity demanded by his office. He recited those Elizabethan lines with eloquence and precision, holding the text in one hand and the scythe in the other. When he finished, one of the English boys chimed in with another line: “Now the melancholy god protect thee!” That prompted a smile from Stephen.

I believe you had left before the midnight climax of our Christmastide revel. We encouraged people to drift off to their own apartments now that Epiphany was upon us. Many of them lived in the same complex, of course, for it was popular due to its cheapness and proximity to the university. We did not worry much about anyone needing to drive home. There were plenty of couches to go around for those who dwelt elsewhere.

Stephen was one of the last to leave. He was engaged in dialogue with Elias Doltson, one of the English students who had finally run out of cigarettes and was seeking the high of academic dialogue. Elias was a short man with curly hair and a perpetually mischievous glint in his eye. Brian was sitting on the couch, clearly exhausted but loving every moment of the event. Stephen was in the Sacred Seat, no longer wearing the beard but still wrapped in his makeshift toga. I made a mental note to buy a real costume toga from a Halloween shop for the next year’s party, and I listened in while tossing paper plates and beer bottles in the trash.

“I’m telling you, Shakespeare was the first modernist poet,” Elias was saying. “He invented modern psychology long before Freud. He really dug into the dark recesses of the human psyche and showed us what we really are, how frail we are. The boiling foam of the subconscious is all over his plays.”

“That’s a very Nietzschean take,” Stephen said. “Not necessarily wrong, mind you, but I have my doubts that Shakespeare would agree. There are two important ways of reading any poet: what he meant within his own context and time, and what he has come to mean throughout the ages. Theatrical directors have found inspiration by recontextualizing Shakespeare to comment on colonialism and gender theory, for instance.”

“Yes, yes,” Elias was saying. “Absolutely.”

“You could read Shakespeare as the last great medieval poet, but wouldn’t that make him increasingly alien to the contemporary mind?” Stephen said. My interest really picked up at that statement, and I bit down the urge to kick out these last stragglers from the apartment. “He speaks to us about the folly of human endeavor, both in the tragedies and in the comedies. ‘All the world’s a stage,’ or, ‘A poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.’ William sees all of human life as a theatrical stage, and all of us as simply acting out parts for the amusement of our fellow man.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying!” Elias nearly yelled. “The pageantry of the Elizabethan stage is just a more honest take on the façade of the religious mystery plays.”

“Oh, come on,” Brian interrupted. “Trying to find nihilism at the bottom of Shakespeare’s bottle is like squeezing water from a stone. Just because he had a sense of humor about life on earth doesn’t make him one of us… post-meaning nobs.”

Elias broke in with a series of slurred “No”s and stood up in what seemed to be an attempt to appear more intimidating. When he did, he slipped and fell on his butt while trying to grab at a coffee table for support. He looked dazed and stared vacantly at the wall for a few seconds.

“All right, Ezra Pound. Time for you to call it a night,” Brian said. He helped Elias up and maneuvered him to the back patio door, which he smoothly closed and locked behind the small man. Elias’s apartment was a block away in the Greek section.

“This is a night!” we heard him yell through the glass. (We would find him asleep on one of the patio chairs the next morning, not much the worse for wear. Texas winters tend to be mild.)

Brian slowly walked to the kitchen and helped me put a few dishes in the sink. His eyes were heavy with fatigue, but the smile did not leave his face. Stephen still sat in the Seat, looking at nothing in particular and idly scratching his chin.

“Do you need to stay here?” I asked. I had mixed feelings about the man, but he had been a good sport about being named the melancholy god, and I felt strongly the duties of host to attend to his needs. “You can have the couch if you don’t want to drive home.”

He sat quiet for a long moment more, and did not move from his reverie.


“I have offended you,” he said, and finally looked me in the eye. “You see these trappings”—and here he indicated his Saturnalian garb—“as more than mere trappings. They have real meaning.”

“I’m not one for a lot of irony,” I said. “But don’t let me stop you from discussing your field of study.”

“I keep forgetting I’m in a place where the majority of the students actually acknowledge a higher significance than the values we make ourselves.”

He became pensive again. I was unsteady on my feet, more from exhaustion than drink, and I didn’t really have the mental energy to spar with him. Life as a grad student was an endless cycle of these kinds of conversations: the endless flapping of tongues by intelligent people intent upon building elaborate castle walls around systems of ideas which they had no intention of ever revising.

If I had been more engaged with the stream of opinions that evening and less overwhelmed by the practicalities of hosting, I might have recognized Stephen’s expression as one of real consideration and thoughtfulness. I might have seen this as a potential turning point for him, a moment in which he perhaps would have accepted a nudge in a different direction. I do not know exactly what I could have said, but such moments of potential have a way of clawing in one’s memory as if digging a deep well of regret.

Stephen shook his head and muttered something that I could barely make out.

Hier ist kein warum.”

I only knew a bit of Latin and medieval French, so I was simply confused as Stephen stood and made his goodbyes, solemnly removing his cloak and leaving through the front door.

The next semester was a busy one. I was wrapping up my first year of classwork. Stephen was finishing his last. You were also in your first year. I found opportunities to spend time with you, inviting you to parties or looking for you in the library and asking to share a table for study. You were frequently in the company of your sister, and I struggled to find you alone. Perhaps if I had been more forthright from the start? But that semester flew by in a daze of classwork and papers, and with summer you returned to your home state while I stayed to take remedial language courses.

Stephen also left at the end of the semester. He had a dissertation to write about German political movements at the start of the twentieth century. I did not think I would ever see him again, if I am being honest. One sees people come and go with alarming frequency in graduate school. Someone with whom you’ve had many deep discussions about the early French chansons and their influence on the development of chivalric romance could one day simply not be there any longer. Someone with brown eyes the color of rich soil and a mirthful smile that always seemed to be hiding a chuckle. Someone who encouraged me to come back to regularly attending Mass just for an opportunity to spend time in her vicinity.

But in Stephen’s case, he disappeared quite thoroughly. At the end of that spring semester, he was suddenly gone from social media and had apparently moved out of town. A lot happened over the summer and that fall, but you know much of it already. Christmas came around again, and by early January many had trickled back into town from their holiday trips. Brian and I decided to host another Twelfth Night gathering, this time with more formal Saturnalian garb on hand and a better display of Christmas decorations on all the walls. Winter doesn’t usually arrive here until February, but we did our best to help our guests pretend that snow could begin falling and the jingle of sleigh bells might be heard ringing outside at any moment.

You and your sister arrived fashionably late. You were dressed as Mrs. Claus, and you weren’t the only one to take our suggestion to dress in a Christmas costume seriously. For some reason I hadn’t bothered to wear anything festive. I had assumed everyone would think the costume idea was a joke. After the English students arrived, I removed the Crown of the Lord of Misrule from my own brow and gave it to Elias. Brian took one look at me and said my bare head would never do, then snagged a Santa hat from some poor philosophy student and shoved it down on my head.

Suddenly I realized that you and I were in matching costumes. I could feel my face burning with embarrassment, and made an excuse to step out and take a bag of trash to the dumpster. When I returned through the patio, you were sitting out there by yourself, a drink in hand. I almost told you that I should be getting back inside to manage the party, but I stopped myself in time and sat with you instead.

“So, Mrs. Claus,” I said, “fancy meeting someone like you at a place like this?”

“A place like what?” you said, and you sipped whatever it was you were drinking, to hide a smile.

“Why, a place so unlike the North Pole,” I said, my mind wildly trying to invent on the fly. “You must be used to colder climates and the company of polar bears. How do you like our dusty desert wasteland?”

“I see nothing to fear in a mere handful of dust. Maybe the Clauses are looking to expand into a southern office.”

I wished at that moment that I also had a drink in my hand, something to fiddle with so I wouldn’t feel so naked. The hat felt like a promise to follow through with a role, a part to play on the stage with an audience of only ourselves. A chill wind blew over the fence surrounding the patio. It seemed to carry the whisper of unearthly voices.

I will not recall in detail the awkwardness of asking you out that night, and how we made a date for the next weekend. By the time we reentered the apartment I felt as giddy as if I had been drinking already. I would soon start.

On the Sacred Seat sat Stephen, staring ahead into nothing as the party swirled around him. He had no drink in his hand. He was wearing a plaid shirt and dark slacks, and seemed to be just about the only person who had arrived without a proper costume. (Aside from me, of course.) I didn’t realize he was still in the area. I thought he might be in town to visit or to take care of something regarding his dissertation at the university. I wondered how he had received an invitation, since it was all done online.

He was even more taciturn than usual. I hardly made it to that side of the room all night, I was so busy being being in the dining room with you while my history department buddies talked. The night went by in a blur. After a few hours I walked you out to your car, and when I came back, we were ready to pass out pieces of the king cake.

“Where were you?” Brian asked. “The natives are restless and want to see the crowning of their new king.”

“Father Time got away from me,” I said.

I looked over to the green recliner, intending to say hello to Stephen. He was gone.

“Did Stephen leave already?” I asked.

“The first Father Time, himself? I didn’t know he was here.”

“Yeah, I saw him earlier on the Sacred Seat.”

“Maybe he’s in the bathroom. Let me cut the cake and ring in Epiphany properly. Grab the poem, will you?”

I did, and Stephen never reappeared that night. Elias was crowned as the new Saturn. He spent the next hour quoting random lines from the play to anyone who would listen and to many who wished not to.

“And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges!”

The rest of the night was a little tedious, if I’m being honest, but people were entertained and we did not clear them out until well after midnight. I met you for Mass the next day in the evening. The hangover was mostly dispersed by then. I continued to wonder why Stephen had arrived out of nowhere and had left just as quietly.

That spring semester was a wild ride. We hit our high very early. Brian told me he once caught us making out in the library. We were a little more careful after that. You wanted to move back to Minnesota after school, and I found out you had an aunt who was bankrolling your graduate degrees because she wanted you to have a good education. No ambition at all to teach. I got along great with your family, but you didn’t care for mine. I guess that was their fault, really. My dad is really pushy, and he’s been worse since the divorce.

The reality checks just kept getting cashed. You wanted way more children than me. I’ve never seen myself as the paternal type. I pushed back on the eventual move north, arguing that I had to stay open to teaching opportunities around the country. I got in that long quarrel about clerical roles in the Middle Ages with your sister, and I think you took it more personally than she did.

Almost overnight we were at each other’s throats, and not in the good way. We dug in our heels, picking many hills to die upon. By the end of the semester, we were both a little desperate. You tried breaking your own rule about physical boundaries in an attempt to fix us. I shot you down, and I regret that I did so by saying you were just trying to get pregnant to gain the upper hand. I am surprised to admit that I do not regret not taking advantage of the situation. After all the early arguments we had, I thought I would have jumped at the opportunity, but I suppose your logic and willpower had rubbed off on me.

Some things can’t be readily forgiven and forgotten, Blanche. Even if they could have been, we realized by that time that we each wanted very different things. I quietly pocketed the ring I had bought (this will be first you’ve heard of its existence), and I could not bring myself to sell it. You left town for the summer, and left me at the same time. In the autumn we were cordial when we had to be in one another’s presence, but otherwise we did not speak nor make eye contact. You told me you didn’t even want your books returned. I am certain that was a lie.

By the time the next Christmas rolled around I was still single in spite of my attempts with a new classmate, and I went hard into party prep for the Twelfth Night party with Brian once we were both back in town. I was memorizing lines from the play, Brian was buying holiday decorations that had just gone on sale in all the stores, we were making two king cakes with one being a “queen cake” for the crowning of Juno, and we even had a superior plastic scythe I had bought at another Halloween store. Brian had an idea for a drinking game called “The Twelve Shots of Christmas” which was, unsurprisingly, a hit.

Well, I won’t bore you with all the details. It was a good party, in spite of all the baggage that had become associated with the holiday. It felt like it would be petty not to invite you, but I was relieved when you did not show.

And, once again, Stephen Gregors was in attendance.

He did not appear on the Sacred Seat as he had the year before. Rather, I found him hiding in the back patio, sitting on a deck chair in the near darkness of the courtyard lights. I had taken up smoking with the English students, and was stepping out for a short breather when I saw him out of the corner of my eye.

“Stephen!” I said. “As I live and breathe.”

The other smokers continued further out through the gate and into the courtyard, leaving me alone with Stephen. I felt the urge to join them but felt more strongly the urge to be a good host and make conversation.

“I saw you here last year. I was surprised. I thought you had moved on to a doctoral program somewhere else.”

He continued saying nothing, and his eyes never quite met mine.

“You want a smoke? I can’t remember if you do.”

At that, he looked at me, unblinking, and spoke a single word:


I waited for an explanation, but he just continued staring and sitting. Finally, I decided to proceed with my immediate social plan.

“Yup,” I said. “It’s about to be. Have a good time at the party, yeah? I’m going to have myself a quick drag. See you in there.”

When I returned, Stephen was nowhere to be found.

Two months later I learned that he had died. He had jumped off the Big Four Bridge that crosses from Indiana into Louisville, an old railway truss bridge that had been converted to pedestrian use in the 2010s. Someone mentioned it in a private online group for the grad students. When I heard about the circumstances, I decided to use my spring break to visit his family in Indianapolis.

This is how I know so much about his family. They were happy to invite me in for a few days and talk about Stephen. I heard all about his childhood, his early love for Stoic moral philosophy, his self-propelled schooling all the way through grad school, and the fights he would often instigate with the rest of his family. I learned that he loved bluegrass music thanks to a high school girlfriend. I learned that he had tried to join the military but was turned away because of joint problems. I learned that he despised his family’s Methodist religiosity. I began to put together a picture of who Stephen Gregors had been, a young and serious man who made few excuses for others and even fewer for himself. His father showed me an incomplete manuscript with the working title of A Modern Consolation of Philosophy. I wondered why he was a history student at all.

But mostly I wondered how he had appeared at my Twelfth Night party for two years in a row, when he had jumped off the Big Four Bridge in the autumn after that first Christmas.

I did not tell any of this to Stephen’s family. I did not want to burden them with the knowledge of… whatever it was I actually knew. Who could say what it meant? Perhaps I had imagined the whole thing. Perhaps he had made such an impression upon me at that first party that I could not imagine the parties happening without him in the future.

Or perhaps it was something else entirely.

It is November now. I was out in a local cemetery last night, thinking about whether or not I want to host another Twelfth Night. Did I want to see the image of Stephen again, sitting on yet another of our many chairs? Brian and I will be moving out in January. I have nothing holding me here anymore. None of my attempts at relationships have worked out. I think you are the only woman I have been able to take on more than three dates.

I was also in the cemetery to pray for the dead. I told you that your good influence had rubbed off on me, in spite of everything. I did not recognize any of the names on the tombstones. I am but a pilgrim in this city. One day I may put down roots, but it won’t be here.

It was in the midst of an Ave that I saw the familiar, tall outline of a man standing among the graves. I walked up to him and looked where he was looking. There was a small statue of an angelic child above a grave a few rows away.

“Good evening,” I said.

He looked at me and nodded, then went back to staring at the statue.

“I have a thought,” I continued without waiting for him to reply. I worried that if I did not keep talking then I simply would run off into the night and never look back. “I think that maybe the circumstances of your death are not so straightforward. I think you had a long enough moment to reconsider the full weight of your actions before you hit the Ohio River.”

He nodded.

I waited, switching from the urgency of speech to a desire not to rush him. He had all the time in the world, after all.

“Do you remember my words?” he asked, finally.

“Yes,” I replied. “I looked it up afterwards. ‘Here there is no why.’ A comment made in order to, I guess, explain the senseless cruelty of the World War. Many lost their faith because of the War. Just as many had their faithlessness confirmed.”

“It was a lying phrase.”

I thought on that for another long moment. It had been the sort of phrase that tugged on something deep and dark at the bottom of my soul, like a monster being dredged up from the sea floor.

“Is that what you realized as you fell?” I said. “That you had been lied to? That there might indeed be a why?”

He stood very still for a quiet minute before he spoke again for the last time.

“It was an Epiphany.”

Then he was gone. I have no assurances that he was not in fact something more malign than he appeared to be, but I have no reason to think that a demon would appear only to pass along a message of hope.

This is why I write to you. In your chosen state of life, you are in perpetual prayer for the salvation of others. I do not ask you to pray for me, but for Stephen. Please consider this an act of charity for a soul in almost complete poverty. I will never visit you, nor will I ask you for anything else in this life. My sincerest apologies if this opens old wounds or makes your life difficult. I do not know who else could help Stephen as much as you could, now.

My apologies also for addressing you by your old name, and not as Sister Rose. Your own sister told me the details a few months back. I think she has almost forgiven me.

I hope you are well. God bless.



Jonathan Edward McDonald lives in the deeply historic St. Charles, Missouri. He has been published in Dappled Things and Ramify, and has written film scripts for Dakota Road Productions.

“Twelfth Night” by Jonathan Edward McDonald. Copyright © 2023 by Jonathan Edward McDonald.

Want to read more great stories like this? Support Mysterion on Patreon!