“The Limes of Medan”
by Matthew McDonald
12th grade, Morristown High School
Teacher: Mrs. Jessica LaGrave
Honorable-mention prize: $50
When I awoke, it was so late that the broad strokes of light which emanated from the tankers in the straits and the restaurants on the street below were no longer coming through the window. I do not entirely recall falling asleep, but some time had to have passed because the noise of rickshaws that fills Medan in July had disappeared. The darkness was complete, the silence total, and so it must have been the very last moment before dawn. The following morning brought with it no appointments (I had that day completed an auspicious deal alongside my uncle, who imported and exported whatever he could lay his hands on, and so for the first time in some weeks I found myself without need or want of work). This being the first night of freedom I was able to enjoy since arriving back at the family home, I was determined to achieve something resembling a good night’s rest. It was the window that prevented this.
There was one floor-to-ceiling window in my bedroom at the Medan house. I hated Medan. It is not the city of my birth (Semarang is) and was not the location of the family estate (which remains in Rotterdam). This lack of personal connection, combined with my detestation of the languorous Malaccan summer where one has a better chance of finding Queen Wilhelmina selling mie goreng in the marketplace than catching a cool breeze, led me to avoid assignments at the Medan house when I could. My father respected my wishes, partially because he enjoyed having me near him among so many lawyers and accountants in the Rotterdam offices and partially because he believed my uncle and the infamously disreputable neighborhoods of inner Medan would corrupt me.
Isak Maria van Jovens was not as sinful a man as my father would have his children believe, but it should be said that there was more reason for him spending his career in the Indies than just my father’s personal quarrels with him. On this particular evening he had returned thoroughly inebriated shouting my name on the front path (never a good sign, considering he would slip in quietly through the back whenever he possessed some remaining shred of self-respect).
“Abel,” he said to me glassy-eyed and in a joking manner, “it is times like these that I wish Indah was still with us.”
Indah was missed always. It was she who used to help uncle Isak up the stairs after his excursions to Chinatown. She had died one autumn when I was away, and I have always regretted never being able to remember our last conversation. Her Dutch was astonishing, she was always quick with a joke or unbearably rude comment, and her hand smacked sharper than her tongue ever wagged. Why mother let her even touch us I do not know, as she never let any of the other servants go near me and my siblings.
I remembered Indah as I stumbled out of bed. I had not opened the window at the Medan house in all my time there, as far as I could recall. The bustle was always too much for me, and the smell of the streets was upon you like a tiger in no time at all. The humidity of countless years had glued the discolored white wood tightly shut, and the sweat that ran over my eyes blinded and stung me. I tried only twice to force the black wrought-iron handles down and pry open the window and then stopped, too tired to go on. The Sumatran jungle heat burns with moisture instead of fire, but the window would give me no mercy.
It had been July, too. The insufferable heat seemed to be emanating from the tiles, like the Romans used to heat their floors, steam rising off the tiles slowly. There were limes rolling across the floor, a thousand in all directions, pure pandemonium, uncontrolled chaos. There was another servant, younger, begging. And Indah was there, too, all in a fury, holding one of the limes, the younger one bowing before her it seemed in pure fright. Mother watched in terror.
What had Indah said? Her lines grew into a concealing smile, her gray hair plastered to her face with sweat gave a good sense of her exhaustion, and she said simply in her tired, clipped accent, “It is an old superstition, old belief. The limes steal the heat away. They cleanse the body of the heat. The girl stole many limes from the pantry. She is new and expendable, and must be fired so the others do not get any ideas.”
I walked with a measured pace, shuddering with each creak in the floorboard, even though it was only my uncle in that dreadful rotting place with me. I closed the bedroom door with careful attention and made my way down the hall, padding across the long oriental rug, then down the staircase, across the tiles cold to the touch in the balmy air, and at last came to the pantry door. I pushed it gently aside and startled myself by running into the crates. I remembered the pantry well from my own raids and found the limes quickly. An old superstition. There were three, maybe four in the old crate. I took one and rushed out to the kitchen to cut it. I sucked on one wedge and decided to take it back with me to my bedroom, more reckless now on the stairs, bouncing with delight, imagining the sweat disappear and the heat evaporate. I ate a good deal. Though I felt no change, I stopped for my chapped lips’ sake. I left the rest on the bedside table and closed my eyes. I cannot remember if it worked.
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