Saturday night at the 2019 Nelsonville Music Festival, Death Cab for Cutie closes their set with “Transatlanticism.” It’s the one song the guy I just started dating, who brought me here tonight, had hoped to hear.
“I can’t believe they played it,” he says.
We’re walking hand-in-hand through the shadowed valley, away from the main stage. Across the sidewalk, teenage boys skateboard up and down a half-pipe. Kids wearing glow-in-the-dark necklaces sleep slumped on their fathers’ shoulders. The air smells like beer and elephant ears. Surrounding it all are the tree-furred silhouettes of the Appalachian foothills, rising and falling along the moonlit horizon.
“It’s fate,” he says, and I laugh.
“I was about to say the same thing,” I say. “I really believe that.”
We wander toward a cluster of 1850s-era cabins. On most weekends, the cabins are stages for pioneer reenactments. During the festival, for intimate musical performances. In the building labeled the No-Fi Cabin, a man named Josh plays piano and sings “I Will Survive.”
Later, I’ll read that the cabin used to be a one-room schoolhouse. For now, I imagine it as a little white church. I imagine it’s white. Tonight, the inside walls are cast lavender by a corner stage light. Instead of a crucifix, a school of turquoise and purple plastic fish are nailed to the thick wood beams.
An audience of 10-or-so sits on backless benches. They hold pint glasses partially-full of craft beer. They sing along. Josh finishes the song, and the woman in the front bench turns around and offers the room a drink from her Nalgene bottle.
“Just water,” she says. She wears a sports bra and neon spandex shorts that spell, in rhinestone-studded letters, “Keep Calm and Bite Me.” She requests “Country Roads,” and as Josh begins to sing, everyone in the cabin raises their drinks, their voices. My boyfriend, who’s from this area, leans toward me. “This is our song,” he says. “Because we’re so close to West Virginia.” His our and we refer to Southeast Ohioans, Appalachians, and I, coming from Indiana, don’t know if I should sing along.
At the closing piano note, my boyfriend whoops his support. He lets go of my hand to point at the cowboy hat resting beneath the piano bench. He says, “Why don’t you turn that hat upside-down, Josh?”
“I love this,” Josh says. “I don’t do it for the money.” But we pass the hat around anyway, fill it with dollar bills and quarters.
Josh chooses “Hallelujah” next. The woman in the front row harmonizes, and I close my eyes and listen as hallelujahs resonate through the open air cabin.
Sometime during my nineteen years of Christian education, I learned that the word hallelujah translates as I will praise my God, but every internet source I’ve consulted translates the word not as a promise to praise but as an exhortation—a Hey, you, praise God.
I wait to join the cabin chorus until the third verse. “The holy or the broken hallelujah.”
In college, my Biblical Literature professor told us that we should pay attention to the words of the songs we sang at church and chapel, to measure them against our theology and not sing what we did not believe. Better to be silent than to sing falsely.
“That’s the closest I’ve been to church in a long time,” I tell my boyfriend on our walk back to the car.
I haven’t attended church in ten months, since I started to feel I could no longer sing honestly verses of surrender, of hope. I no longer knew what I believed, and the more I’ve considered it, the less I know. British Modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, masters of managing multiple points of view, described a complex understanding of reality. Nothing and no one is any one thing. Hallelujahs can be holy and broken, both. A cabin can be a church, a stage, a schoolhouse. An aquarium.
We cross a long field to the gravel parking lot, and my boyfriend tells me how glad he is that we experienced this night together, that he got to show me part of his world. I smile, think of the fish, some swimming one direction, others in the opposite, all nailed to the lavender-lit walls. I think but don’t tell him: my world, too.
A graduate from Taylor University, Hillary Jo Foreman is currently working toward her MA in Fiction at Ohio University. Her fiction appears in Brilliant Flash Fiction.