A girl is reaching a long, slim willow branch into the river to fish for sparkles while her mother crouches down to capture the moment on her iPhone. ‘Don’t get too close,’ the woman cautions from behind her device. The girl’s response is a gleeful flick of the branch that sends glittering jewels of water into the air above her mother.
Her mother snaps. ‘Ruth! That was silly! You’ll get my phone wet!’ Ruth turns away from her joyless mother and dips her bowed branch back into the river.
Twelve carefully framed photographs later, Ruth’s mother tucks her iPhone into the back pocket of her shorts. ‘I’ll get the picnic ready,’ she tells Ruth. ‘Don’t get any closer to the water, will you?’ Ruth is ten, a perfectly competent swimmer, and weary of a mother who nags the fun out of life.
There is a creature that lives in the river. She lives in all rivers everywhere. When the sun shines, she looks up from her bed with bright eyes that sparkle longingly at the green land and the blue skies. Such longing – but thousands of years ago, and hundreds more before that, she was born into the water and there it is her destiny to remain. She aches endlessly for the flesh of humans. On still and sunny days, the land and trees reflect perfectly on the river and on these days, the creature can imagine herself wandering across a dry and solid world. She yearns to roam the fields, the forests, the hills and the mountains that tease her with their presence on the river’s surface, for she craves the souls of the people who walk there.
Ruth knows nothing of the creature. She runs alongside the riverbank chasing a dragonfly and from the river, the creature watches on, delighted.
Ruth ignores the call.
‘Ruth! I’ve got chocolate fingers but they’re melting in the sun – hurry up!’
The dragonfly flashes over to the other side of the river and Ruth watches it disappear before she heads up towards the chocolate fingers. She begins her lunch with one of those. ‘They’re melting,’ she tells her mother’s frowning face, and she sucks her sticky brown fingers clean.
‘Don’t do that,’ Ruth’s mother tells her. ‘You haven’t washed your hands. And eat a sandwich, not just biscuits.’
Ruth puts three chocolate fingers into a bread roll. ‘There. A sandwich – OK? And I won’t get my fingers chocolatey.’ The recipe is ingenious. Being both a sandwich and pudding, the chocolate finger roll saves time. Just four minutes later, Ruth leaps up to return to her adventures.
‘Be careful by the river,’ her mother instructs. ‘In fact, wait until I’m with you before you play there. Elodie and Annie will be along soon and we’ll paddle together.’
Obediently, Ruth scampers off towards the trees. Elodie. She is French and she can’t say Ruth’s name properly – Elodie calls her Root. Ruth has to be polite and pretend not to notice. Or to mind. But it really annoys her. Root?
Some people say it’s the call of the water that draws people to the river. The truth is that it’s the call of the river creature and Ruth’s young heart can’t resist the creature’s silent summons. She doesn’t even realise she is heading towards the river, which has bent its long arm round to reach the other side of the trees. Ruth crunches and crackles out of the copse, baffled by the river’s return. But overjoyed because here, a bank of dusty grey mud creeps gently down to the water so that she can reach to dip in her fingers. Or – she pulls off her sandals – her toes.
The river creature’s eyes glitter excitedly.
On the other side of the copse, Ruth’s mother tests out a few filters on the photos of her river-dabbling daughter. Finding two that enhance the enchanted moment perfectly, she posts them up on Instagram and promises herself she will go to play with Ruth when one friend has liked them.
At first, people worshipped the river creature but over time, she became forgotten. A hundred years ago, or maybe more, a memory of her clung on with a narrative thread in folklore but passed over and over in the retelling, the thread was growing weak and dissolving in the mouths of the story tellers. In the last tales that were told of her, her name was Jaw-Dillow and it was this name that came to define her form in the misty narratives that followed. Jaw-Dillow. The name struck fear in hearts. The Jaw-Dillow, went the tales, swallows up people who don’t take care on the river. It bites down on them and sucks the life out of them, then it spits them out. Dead.
The water is cold and, with a gasp, Ruth pulls her toes out of the river.
‘And well you should. Or the Jaw-Dillow will be having you.’
So not completely forgotten. The creature is enthralled. She gurgles impatiently and slides her silky silver tendrils across the smooth stones at the river’s edge.
Resting against the post of a fence is a shrivelled old lady who, in spite of the warm weather, is wrapped in many layers of clothing. Black. All of her clothes are a faded shade of black, as if she is in mourning and has been forever. Her face is hidden by the dark shadow of a broad-brimmed hat. ‘The Jaw-Dillow,’ she says again with a dry, creaking voice. ‘That’ll get you if you don’t watch out.’
Alarmed, Ruth grabs her sandals and races barefoot back to the copse, the old lady’s words of warning wilting in the air as Ruth disappears into the trees.
‘You’ll not take anyone from here today, you old monster,’ the grizzled old lady mutters towards the river. With a rustle of her long black skirt, she shuffles off, past a tree adorned with fraying ribbons, and up towards a small cottage that that had turned its heartbroken back on river many generations ago. A cloud passes over the sun and the creature dips her eyes back under the river’s surface, disappointed that she cannot play with the girl on the riverbank.
The girl, Ruth, runs back to her mother. Tears flow down her face because her mind is now burdened with a terrible knowledge and her heart is overflowing with terror. The wizened old lady had been fearsome enough but the Jaw-Dillow she spoke of is horrifying.
Ruth’s mother is standing on the riverside, talking to a figure in the water. She turns towards her returning daughter. ‘Ruth! Where did you get to? Elodie and Annie have shown me the perfect place to paddle. Come on!’
Elodie is in the river. Ruth tries to shout but her voice is frozen.
‘Salut, l’artiste!’ Elodie calls. ‘We’ll swim down to meet you.’
Then, from behind Elodie, a sleek, dark body breaks out of the water. A scream lodges itself in Ruth’s lungs. The terror contained inside the scream makes it too huge to escape through Ruth’s throat and into the warm summer air.
But this body is Annie, wet-suited. Elodie speaks to her and the two of them race downstream.
‘No!’ Ruth finds her voice at last and runs alongside them. ‘The Jaw-Dillow will get you. You have to get out.’
‘What’s wrong, darling?’ Ruth’s mother catches up with her distressed child.
‘We have to get Elodie and Annie! They have to get out!’ Ruth sobs. Spying the bundle of Elodie and Annie’s clothes, Ruth sprints down to the river’s edge and gestures wildly to her mother’s friends. ‘The Jaw-Dillow. It will hurt you! Come on! Hurry!’ Ruth has never heard the stories but the creature’s name tells her everything. The old woman had hinted at the creature’s menace and in Ruth’s imagination, awful events are taking shape.
‘The joie what?’ Elodie mispronounces the word. She doesn’t understand.
‘Jaw!’ Ruth screams. ‘The Jaw-Dillow!’ Elodie doesn’t know about the hideous fangs of the dangerous creature that swims in the river here.
Elodie is standing, knee deep in the water now. She pulls back her goggles. ‘The Joie de l’Eau?’ she asks. ‘That is a wonderful expression! Yes – that is what we come for! La Joie de l’Eau!’ She throws herself back into the water.
The creature ripples with delight. She is known again. She spins around and around Elodie and Annie, filling them up with her power, caressing their souls with her spirit. The women’s eyes sparkle alongside a thousand other sparkling eyes that are now dancing on the surface of the river. The Joie de l’Eau floats ecstatically above her watery home, and Ruth is dazzled.
The Joie de l’Eau has never hurt a living being. It’s not in her power to save people from the river’s cruelty or from their own carelessness; she would if she could – so many tragedies… although, there was the baby in the bulrushes, but that was a long, long time ago… What she can do, however, is make people feel their life; to make them feel more alive than they have ever felt before.
Ruth’s mother bends down and, gently, she kisses her daughter. ‘It’s fine! We’re good here. It’s not deep, the current isn’t strong, Elodie and Annie know the river and they can look after us – they swim here all the time.’ This is true. The creature knows these two and their friends well. And others. More people have been coming to the river in recent years; she can’t visit people but at last people are visiting her again.
‘But the Jaw thing,’ Ruth says. ‘The old lady said it was a Jaw Dillow and…’
‘You must have misheard her,’ Ruth’s mother says. ‘It’s the Joie de l’Eau. That’s what Elodie says. Do you know what that means? It’s the joy of water!’
‘Joy,’ Ruth murmurs. As her gaze drifts downstream, a blue spark of dragonfly flashes over the reeds and she remembers what she had been feeling earlier. Joy… It made sense. Perhaps Ruth hadn’t heard the old lady properly; her voice had been withered and cracked. Ruth turns back to see her mother wading into the water towards the laughter of her friends. Her mother stops. She tosses her phone onto the pile of clothes, a massive smile on her face – and with, what Ruth believes, is the river’s sparkle in her eyes.