Jane suffered a crisis of faith when her best friend Holly drowned in the Tennessee River. But now, Holly has returned—a sad creature of mud, full of confusion and sorrow. It’s Holly, somehow, trapped and mixed up with the river. Jane must put Holly to rest while figuring out how to move on from the tragedy herself. Otherwise, Holly will take everybody down with her—even the people they love the most.
Blending Looking for Alaska’s theme of lost friendship with Stephen King’s sense of small town horror, The Drowned Forest is a Southern gothic tale of grief, redemption, and the mournful yearning of an anguished soul.
"Reisz’s love and respect for his characters and their milieu is evident on every page, and his use of the Deep South’s regional mythology is deliciously chilling." ~ Kirkus Reviews
AvailableAmazon • Amazon UK
But it’s a beautiful day, Holly. It’s the most beautiful day.
Pastor Wesley stands in the river, frog-green water swirling around his thighs. Sunlight ripples in his out-stretched hands and across the white robes of those about to be baptized.
“. . .Nobody can carry these burdens on their own. We’ve all tried. All of us have struggled.” One of the converts sobs, head hanging against his chest. Others lift their arms to Heaven.
“We’ve come to set our burdens down. At long last. Knowing God will always shoulder them for us.”
Tyler plucks out the opening hook on his guitar, and we raise our voices. I’m gonna lay down my heavy load, down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside. I’m gonna lay down my heavy load. . .
This song is in our bones, the song we sing every Rivercall. People clap or lift their hands. Bodies sway with the grass. Good church shoes churn up the thick red Alabama clay. Faye, a bouncing ball of taffeta, jumps around to a rhythm all her own. You see her, Holly?
. . .Gonna put on my long white robe, down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside. . .
Pastor Wesley takes the hand of the first convert, leading him into the river. He’s lowered into the cold water, down into the dark and quiet of death.
Just for a second, though. Then he rises up again. He is reborn. The Spirit caresses him in tongues of holy flame. His struggles are over, and he knows it. I can see from his face that he knows it.
One by one, men and women, boys and girls, let who they used to be drown. One by one, the redeemed emerge from the river. Sometimes, spilling over with new life, they jerk and buck. The deacons hold them up under the armpits until they can walk to shore. They are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. And this is the most beautiful day, Holly.
But my heart is shut to it all. I can’t stop thinking about how, one month ago, you fell into the river and vanished. No singers lending you courage, no hugging afterward. Just the cold and dark and endless quiet.
Your pa-paw stands on the edge of the crowd wearing clean jeans and bolo tie. He sees me looking and smiles. I smile back, then Faye slips in the dewy grass. I scoop her up before she starts crying. Whispering in her ear, I coax her to sing.
. . .Well, I'm gonna meet all of my brethren, down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside. . .
I sing as loud as I can, but I can’t feel tongues of holy flame. I’m just dizzy and wilting in the heat and deviled by sweat bees.
Tyler stretches the song out while one last buzz-cut boy and his mom get baptized. While they’re led off to change into dry clothes, the congregation drifts toward the picnic shelter. Fried chicken, steaming hot rolls, sweet white corn, and plenty more crowd the wooden tables. Everybody starts filling their plates; everybody except your pa-paw. He pushes against the crowd, going to clap Tyler on the back.
I need to say hey, but not right now. Instead, I turn to Faye, asking, “Ready for some chicken?”
Faye gets to carry the drinks. I load our plates with food, and we sit with Mom, Dad, and Yuri. The wind is sweet--smelling of grass. Our picnic blanket flutters, held down with rocks. The fried chicken skin crackles like tracing paper between my teeth. I tear through it, and a sputter of hot juice hits my tongue.
Know why Baptists make such good fried chicken, Holly? Because we have to. We can’t drink, gamble, or cuss. That’s a lot of carnal urges that have to be satisfied through chicken. If you took this away, we’d go crazy.
“Jane, you say hi to Tyler?” Dad asks, cutting Yuri’s chicken into pieces with his pocket knife.
“Well, tell him how great he played.”
“Yes, sir.” I tuck a napkin into the collar of Faye’s dress. She’s got her corn cob clutched in both pink fists, and the niblets are flying. “Doesn’t have to show off, though. All those noodley-noodley parts in the middle.”
Dad laughs. “That’s just his style. Every musician needs their own style.”
Remember when you played at last year’s Rivercall, Holly? You played the song clean. You knew “Down by the Riverside” didn’t need noodley-noodley parts to be beautiful. It’s more beautiful without them.
“I’m just thankful he came,” Mom says. “Go say hello.”
“I will. Let me eat first.”
“Take your plate with you. Jane. . .” Her voice drops to a whisper, “Remember what Dr. Haq said? You’re not supposed to isolate.”
“I’m not– Yes, ma’am.” I have to show that I’m keeping it together, so I don’t argue and stand up to go over. Mom adds, “And tell Tim he better get some food before it’s gone. I’m not fixing lunch today.”
My brother explores the shore with his friends. I shout at him to go eat, but they’re busy flipping over rocks and watching whatever scurries or slithers out from underneath. I’m not going to chase after them if they’re having fun.
Tyler’s talking to Bo now. Where’s your pa-paw? I search the picnickers, but I guess he left already. Tomorrow, I’ll stop by your house, just check in on him. I know, I know. I’ve been saying that for the whole past month since your funeral, but this time I really will. Tomorrow. No excuses.
Except your house must still smell like you. I don’t think I can walk in there without falling apart. But I’ll try. Tomorrow. I promise, promise, promise.
“Hey, Jane!” Bo waves me over. “I was telling Tyler how awesome he was today.”
“Yeah, you were great.” I go to hug Tyler, but he hesitates. Then he reaches out, but I hesitate, one arm hanging in the air. It’s like we’re trying to reach around the empty space where you should be.
Tyler says, “I saw your mom and dad. I was gonna go say hi.”
“You should. They ask about you a lot.”
“Sorry I haven’t been around lately. I just–”
“No, I mean, they’ve just been worried about you.”
We fall into stiff silence, smiles frozen in place. I say, “You really did play great.”
Tyler says, “I did email you awhile–”
“Yeah, I got it. I just–”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it. Seriously.”
I smooth out imaginary wrinkles in my dress. Why is talking to him so hard? How can I have nothing to say after all the youth group stuff we’ve done together? After all the times he’s been to my house, wrestling with Tim on the living room carpet? He was your boyfriend, Holly; he loved you as much as I did.
But everything’s strange now, and everybody’s a stranger. Even Tyler.
“Okay. Well, I’m going to get some food before it’s all gone,” Bo says. He squeezes both our shoulders, telling Tyler, “You have a real gift. Thanks for sharing it.”
Bo’s the one who asked Tyler to play today, wasn’t he? It’s exactly the sort of youth minster-y thing he’d do. Half a dozen other musicians in the congregation, but Bo reaches out to the guy who hasn’t been to church in weeks. He says, “And Tyler, I’d really like to talk about getting you into the praise band.”
Tyler shakes his head. “No. Thanks, but I don’t really think I could keep up with their schedule.”
“Well, maybe we could just have you fill in every once in a while. Like I said, Tyler, you have an incredible—”
“I said ‘no.’”
The snap in Tyler’s voice startles Bo. He laughs to cover it up. “Okay. No problem. But still, thanks for coming out today. Jane, take care now.”
He heads off, and Tyler says, “Guess I better get some chicken too,” trying to slip away gracefully.
“You can have mine if you want.” I offer him the thigh off my plate. No matter how awkward this feels, I do want him to stay.
“I can’t steal your food.”
“Whatever. Since when?”
Tyler laughs, and there’s a glimmer of what things were like before. He takes the chicken and my roll. We sit on a driftwood tree, worn smooth as bone. Pulling off my sandals, I press my toes into the water and sandy soil. The Tennessee River rushes across four states, but here, behind Wilson Dam, it slows down and swells up. The river turns into fat, lazy Wilson Lake. That makes it a perfect spot for a picnic. It makes it the perfect spot to talk and share food and try to reconnect with Tyler.
We chat about the weather and how bad the mosquitoes are. When we run out of easy things to talk about, Tyler picks up his guitar. He plays some little riff and asks, “So you doing okay? Really?”
“Yeah. I mean, it’s not like I’m not sad, but. . . I’ve been praying a lot.”
Tyler nods without looking up from his guitar. I ask, “How about you? Doing okay?”
“Not really, no.” He starts into the same song again, the lonely riff leading into chords sick with reverb.
“I know you’re sad right now, but. . . I mean, I am too but. . . When you’re at the end of your rope, you just have to tie a knot of faith and hold on. I mean, we just. . . We. . .”
Tyler’s song squeezes my chest, making it hard to breathe, impossible to speak. It holds me trapped, watching the guitar strings flicker like dragonfly wings under his fingers. There’s no noodley-noodley parts, no big finish. Tyler drops his palm across the strings, and the song vanishes. “I need to get this stuff packed away.” He waves a hand toward the church’s battered amp and the cords snaking through the grass. “But it was good seeing you. Say hi to your mom and dad and everybody, okay?”
“You don’t want to–”
“No, I’m gonna get this stuff packed away and head on out. But good seeing you.”
“Yeah, you too.”
“Thanks for the chicken.”
“Sure.” Another awkward hug, and he walks away. I turn to watch a barge cutting down the middle of the lake, heading toward the dam. Once it enters the lock, dam operators will lower it to the other side, where the river runs narrow and quick again—a hundred tons of steel and cargo, along with a couple thousand gallons of water, dropping five stories in a few minutes. From the shore, though, the barge seems to drift along ghost-silent, wavering in the hot air. The dam’s groans and shrieks of metal have a hollow quality, like they’re not quite real.
After another minute, I pick up my sandals and walk back. With most people finished eating, Bo is getting some of the kids together for a water balloon toss. I edge around them and return to our family’s picnic blanket.
Mom asks, “So how’s Tyler?”
“I hope he starts coming to church again.”
He won’t. He was doing a favor for Bo today, that’s all. “He’s still pretty sad.”
“Well, of course, but he’s got to stop running away from God and let Him catch up.”
Dad adds, “Email him tonight. Make sure he knows he’ll always be welcomed back.”
I roll my eyes. “He knows.”
“Never hurt anybody to hear it.” Dad rubs my back. “Tyler needs God, honey. That means he needs you.”
Holly, I’m sorry. I know how bad Tyler’s hurting, but I can’t be his shepherd. I can barely keep myself together.
Yuri pushes his plate away and starts rocking. Mom hasn’t shaved him in a couple days, and bits of food stick to the stubble around his lips. Dabbing them off with my napkin, I ask, “You want some pie, buddy?”
“Mmm. . . Ice cream on top?”
“Ice cream.” He stops rocking. “An’ pie.”
I get back up to get dessert. Out on the river, something breaks the surface, catching my eye–an old Styrofoam cooler, slimy green-black with algae. I slow down, shield my eyes with my hand. A blossoming brown wake moves toward the bank–sediment and trash tumbling up from the bottom. Tim and his friends are too busy playing to notice the flip-flop pop up a few feet away.
A loud wet smack makes one of the boys yelp, and every head whips around. The boys scramble backwards. Tyler runs toward the bank, and I’m on his heels.
“C’mon, guys. Keep away from it.” Tyler steers the kids behind him. But Tim is crouched down, reaching toward the catfish. Before I can shout, Tyler catches his wrist. “Watch it. Don’t want to catch one of those spines.”
He scoops Tim up and passes him over to me.
“Jane, see it?” Tim asks.
I nod, squeezing my brother against me. The catfish probably weighs more than Tim. It’s the size of a Rottweiler. Fleshy whiskers taste the air. Too-human eyes–pupils and irises surrounded by white–have shrunk to pinpoints in the sudden sunlight.
Gruh. . . Gruh. . . The thing’s croak sounds like old bones splintering. Its mouth is a lipless gash, dripping wads of mud. The thing already smells dead. It’s carried the rotten smell of the river-bottom up with it. It still thrashes, though, driving itself higher up onto the rocks.
Gruh. . .
“Whoa.” Adults crowd around us. I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Jane, take your brother and. . . Man, that girl’s gotta be a hundred pounds.”
“Check out the hook scars; she’s been around awhile.”
“Wonder why she beached herself like that.”
“Must be sick. Fish’ll do that sometimes if they’re sick and dying.”
The fish slaps its tail against the mud. People jump back. There’s more nervous laughter, then someone says, “Let’s get these kids out of here. Come on, kids, let’s get some pie.”
They herd Tim and the other boys back to the picnic shelter. None of them notice the giant channel-cat cough something up. A ring.
Gruh. . . Gruh. . .
Tyler asks, “Jane? You okay?”
I step closer to the beast—raw pink gills pumping as it suffocates—and snatch the treasure from the mud.
“It’s Holly’s ring.” I rub away the grime. “Tyler, it’s the ring you gave her. It’s. . . Tyler, it’s. . .”
Tyler takes it with shaking hands. He turns it over—the simple silver band with a cut-out cross—lost to the waters, now returned. Grace fills me. I laugh out loud then want to cry. Thank you, Holly, thank you for this miracle. I couldn’t have kept going much longer. I love you, I love you.
“What–? Jane, look.” Letters are scratched thin and bright into the tarnished silver. Tyler cleans the ring with his shirt tail. It reads, HELP.