Pen of Iron 2nd Place Prose Winner: “Hallelujah” by Betsy Balch

He took a deep breath, the kind of breath you take
when you’re trying not to cry, or when everything needs
to come out. His fingers plucked at a few strings, playing
solemn, lone notes before he sat up a little straighter in
his chair and began the melody. To most of the other
people in the pub, it would seem as if he was looking down
at his hands to play the next correct note, but his eyes
were closed. I felt his music begin to mesh with my soul. It
touched me, as if he were strumming along my heartstrings
instead of his guitar. And the he parted his rough lips
“Well, I heard there was a secret chord… that David
played and it pleased the Lord. But you don’t really care for
music, do ya…”
I felt almost betrayed by his words in that moment.
I cared so deeply in this moment in an indescribable way;
how could he think I didn’t? I stopped listening to the words,
briefly distracted by those around me. A waitress stopped
in between him and me, handing a group of already drunk
fraternity brothers more beers. I craned my neck to look
around her, to see his face. It was crunched a little, as if it
hurt him to sing these words. I felt every pain that had ever
burdened my life and I felt his. I watched his face change
with each “Hallelujah” he sang. He was growing almost
angry as the song went on, eyes still closed, and shaking
his head as if he could make the words untrue even as
he belted them out. And almost instantly, his whole body
relaxed, dropping in defeat.

“And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.”
His eyes opened for the first time since he’d begun. I
stared, transfixed at the clear blue magic that stirred in them.
And, though he was not seeing me, he stared back into my
“Well, baby, I’ve been here before, I’ve seen this
room, and I’ve walked this floor. You know, I used to live
alone before I knew ya. And I’ve seen your flag on the
marble arch. And love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and
it’s a broken… Hallelujah… Hallelujah…”
I could feel how he was broken, how I was broken.
We, together, were broken, but I, with him now, was not. I
wanted him to know me, as I sat there, learning about him.
“Well, there was a time when you let me know what’s
really going on below but now you never show that to me, do
I felt guilty. Why wasn’t I sharing myself with him like
he was sharing himself with me? He was open, pouring his
every emotion into me, sending it barreling into my heart.
“But remember when I moved in you and the holy
dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was
I took a deep breath, the kind of breath you take when
you’re trying not to cry, or when everything needs to come
out. It needed to come out; I wanted it to, he wanted it too.
But we were broken.
“Well maybe there is a God above, but all I’ve ever
learned from love was how to shoot somebody who outdrew
ya. And it’s not a cry you hear at night, it’s not somebody
who’s seen the light. It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…

Hallelujah… Hallelujah…”
He continued to cry out, though helplessly expecting
no response from the drunken crowd around him. I could
feel myself shaking as I muttered the final “Hallelujah” with
him. He stopped playing, but did not stand. No one seemed
to have noticed his music, so no one noticed the lack of it,
except me. I continued to sit twisted around in my chair, at
my empty table, staring into his face. And he was looking
back, seeing. After what could have been forever, he got up
and walked over to me. I couldn’t find the presence in myself
to move, so he lifted another chair, placing it backwards and
sitting himself in front of me.
“You liked the song?” he asked, his eyes inspecting
the makeup of my soul.
“One of my favorites,” I answered. “But you played it
more beautifully than I’ve ever heard it before.”
He cracked a bit of a grin. “Hallelujah.”

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