Halmeoni’s Wisdom by Brid Cummings

She feels she’s being watched tonight. Nothing unusual about that. And yet, as Arty hisses at her to wade deeper into the rushing waters, she senses eyes peering at her from within the murk of the pine forest. The thought sends a cold shiver through her spine; colder than the river that pushes at her knees, trying to send her sprawling into its swift, raucous flow.

‘Get on with it, will you,’ Arty snarls, sweeping the torchlight across the rocks which line the river like blunt white teeth. ‘You want the neighbour to see us?’

She doesn’t. The new neighbour is a weasel man, with a smirk that never quite graduates to a smile. She knows his type: quick to snitch—or else wants something in return.

Arty hisses again, and she inches forward. The water is becoming deeper, more insistent, grabbing at her thighs like white man’s hands.

‘Okay, you can reach it from there.’ He gives the order as if he’s doing her a favour. But she knows better. Arty wouldn’t manage half this distance. Too chicken shit. Once, in the honeymoon months, he’d confessed he couldn’t swim. Never got taught, he’d said, his voice slurred with booze and self-pity. As if she’d been taught. As if she could swim.

She plants her left palm onto a flattened rock, trying to anchor herself there before reaching out with her right hand and grasping for the upright stake lodged between two boulders. The force of the river vibrates through the shaft, and she tightens her grip, trying to absorb the power, channelling it into her arms, her shoulders, her torso, down to her feet, knowing once she releases the stake, the river will fight her for the net, and for the precious crystalline babies inside.

A soft blush breaks above the trees as they finally finish their work and ascend the riverbank, following the muddy track that winds past the farmhouse and towards the large iron shed. Still, she feels the cool gaze from the forest, but her focus is on the buckets she carries, ensuring the water does not slosh too high as she adjusts the metal handles that bite like blades into the creases of her fingers.

‘Get a move on,’ Arty snaps, although he’s only a few metres ahead. No heavy buckets for him. Only the stakes and an empty net—and the weight of his bulky stomach, which has expanded over the past two years in contrast to his hairline.

Or perhaps he’s always looked like this. Halmeoni used to say people see only what they want to see. She also said no good would come from running overseas. A wise woman. It had been foolish not to listen.

Drawing back the shed door, the smell of rotten seaweed hits her like a punch to the guts. Arty drops the stakes and netting and ambles down the slope without another word. She watches him disappear, then lowers the buckets, and wedges the door open wide with a loose rock. After a deep lungful of outside air, she retrieves the pails, heads past the huge concrete pool inside the shed, and locates the narrow door concealed behind cluttered shelving.

Within the hidden tank room, the air is fresher, although still tainted with the briny scent of the ocean. She flicks off the silent alarm and heads to the row of fish tanks lining the wall. The water in each tank bubbles softly, as a swarm of tiny, translucent babies writhe within. She watches them, transfixed. Glass eels. Soft and supple and clear as glass. Except one. She frowns. How did that get there? If Arty had seen ….

She grabs a small net and fishes out the darker looking elver. Must be a leftover from the last batch. Still young, but if it gets hungry, she knows it will devour its younger siblings. She lowers the wriggling creature into the large bucket beside the door. Other stray eels slither in the waters, all dark skinned, and all to be dispatched when Arty decides its fried eel for tea. The thought knots her stomach. Eel babies swim all the way from the Sargasso Sea; she’d learned that. A long journey. Almost as long as the one she’d made herself, hidden in the lower deck of a cargo ship.

She turns away from the bucket. No one wants these darker eels. Only the prized glass eels, which will be sent out in crates with a bribe to the customs officers, or else hidden in suitcases packed with ice blocks and transported by mules too greedy or too fearful to say no to the smuggler gangs. Not too long ago, she’d been one of the greedy and fearful ones. Not a mule, but keen to work in the trade nevertheless and send her meagre wage straight to her mother’s bank account. Until Arty decided he didn’t need to pay her anymore. That she should just be grateful he gave her food and lodgings and didn’t report her to the authorities.

Diligently, she checks the last tank before pouring in the freshly caught baby eels. They will all be shipped out soon. Sent to holding pens in China or the Philippines where they will be allowed to darken and fatten before being sliced and diced for the expensive restaurants. Arty says a thousand pounds worth of eels here is worth ten times that over there. He doesn’t say one pound here is worth ten times that to her mother—although he knows this too.

Her throat tightens as she returns to the stench of seaweed. Reluctantly, she climbs the pool ladder to peer down at the lumps of kelp festering inside the deep concrete basin. It’s a decoy, Arty had explained. If the police ever come, we’ll tell them we’re trying to commercialise Laver bread—seaweed bread. Arty thinks he’s clever, yet he never thinks to re-fill the tank. Just sits and drinks all day while she does all the work. Suppose that makes him smarter than her.

After a short pause, she climbs onto the narrow edge of the pool and with slow tightrope steps travels along its rim. She’s not worried about getting trapped inside the container—there’s a ladder inside too—it’s the rock-solid base that will greet her skull if she falls. She stops at the inlet tap. It’s stiff, but with a grunt, she turns it clockwise, releasing a gurgling stream of water into the pool. The seaweed sucks and pops in gratitude. But she does not keep the tap open for long.

A shadow? By the door?

No, just her imagination, as usual. Paranoia her constant companion. Still, she shouldn’t leave the shed door open. Arty has warned her about that.


She scuttles down the ladder on hearing his voice. His balding head comes into view just as she kicks away the stone and shuts the door.

‘Been calling you for ages,’ he says, his brow lowered in irritation.

‘Sorting out the fish,’ she replies, hurrying down to greet him.

‘Bloody Asians on the phone again.’ He thrusts the mobile into her hand. ‘Tell them we want the money deposited before shipment this time.’

She nods, following him down the slope as a buyer speaks in broken English through the line.

She tries Korean first, then Mandarin, where the caller responds tersely that he cannot deposit the money in advance.

Arty repeats his demand again. She relays it, then repeats the buyer’s position. Soon both sides are hissing and cursing, and she tries not to flinch as she absorbs each one of the verbal blows.

Finally, the buyer cuts the call abruptly.

Arty grins, grabs the phone and slots it into his shirt pocket. He taps it knowingly. ‘They’ll call back. Guaranteed. With the raids up north, supplies are tight. Should get a higher price too.’

And then, it’s like the honeymoon period again, as they eat lunch, watch TV, and he puts the subtitles on like he used to when she was improving her English. She doesn’t tell him she can speak English better than him nowadays.


The alarm goes off two hours later. A small high pitch whine that tells them both the tank room door is open.

He swings round. ‘You shut it properly?’

She nods, unable to speak, fear suddenly snatching away all her English words.

Arty launches himself from the settee like a wasp-stung dog and rushes to the gun cabinet. She follows him, but only to the front door; her feet do not take her up the steep track, but around the side of the house and to a row of bushes snaking gently uphill. As she reaches the top, she crouches low, staring at the open door of the shed. She scans the area around the building too. Is it a raid? Police? Authorities? But where are the flashing blue lights? Sirens? Men with handcuffs come to send her back?

She jolts at a sudden noise from inside the shed. A surprised yell. A splash. Then a shot. And another. The sound repeats as an echo between the iron panels. She covers her ears. Watches birds rise from the forest and pepper the skies.

Silence descends. She remains static for minutes, that seem like hours, until cramp in her calf forces her to unlock her limbs.

Still quiet.

The door of the shed holds still. The air grows tight. She takes a step forward, then another, stopping after several paces like a deer sniffing the air. But she doesn’t sense predatory eyes from the forest. It seems empty. No witnesses. Only her.

She edges forward again and peers around the shed door. The light is on, but inside is bare, nothing but the cluttered shelving, the cement pool, the ladder.

And a dropped phone.


A small groan follows in reply.

Tentatively, she climbs the ladder, her fingers trembling as she grasps for each rung. But it is not Arty she sees first as she peeks over the rim. It’s weasel man, face down upon a seaweed mattress, with a dark cavity where his right ear should be.

‘Yung.’ Arty’s voice is hoarse as he calls to her. He sits waist-deep in the oily water, slumped against the wall like a discarded soft toy.

She says nothing. Only stares, watching as a serpentine ribbon wends its way from his left flank towards a greasy raft of kelp. Like an eel, she thinks, but not an eel. Not a glass eel with its tiny transparent form slipping through the water. Nor an elver, dark and sleek, twisting towards the seaweed. No, this creature is crimson, long and lithe, gliding sinuously like a red rat snake, or Eopsin as Halmeoni would name it—goddess of wealth.

‘Bring that over.’ Arty winces as he points to the other ladder propped inside the pool.

With her heart thudding, she clambers onto the rim of the pool and advances towards the metal ladder. The frame feels cool beneath her fingers, and surprisingly light as she hauls it upwards.

‘Good girl.’

But she doesn’t turn towards him. Instead, very gently, she twists and settles the ladder against the outside wall. Then she takes a few more steps, and with only a momentary pause, extends her hand towards the inlet tap.

Later, above the sound of rushing water and gargled curses, she hears the ring of Arty’s phone.

The buyer speaks to her in Mandarin. The money will be deposited in advance, he says, but the price must remain the same. No negotiation. She agrees, insisting on only one change—then reels off the bank numbers that she knows by heart. As the digits are repeated back to her, she turns, looking past the cluttered shelving and smiles softly, sensing a future for herself and her mother as clear and bright as the glass eels swimming in their tanks.