25 Aug Infant of Prague
By Kevin Duffy
Emily knew she could get all sorts of snacks at her grandmother’s after school. The type of things her parents didn’t keep in her house and didn’t want her to have—cookies and soda and chips. So she went almost every day with her friends Charlotte and Taylor. They would go and eat, and giggle with Nana and all the little jokes she would make about not mentioning the treats to their parents. Sometimes Nana would stroke Emily’s hair in front of her friends, and she got embarrassed, but it was a small price for their little sanctuary.
On one of these days, as they were all sitting around the little kitchen table with its folding metal legs and plastic top, Nana excused herself and left the room, “for the lady’s,” as she would say. Charlotte nudged Taylor; they were both giggling and covering their mouths. Taylor leaned toward Emily: “What is that creepy baby?”
“That creepy baby,” on a shelf above the table where nana’s big old telephone was, standing about a foot high in a big long red gown, all frilly at the neck and sleeve-ends, with an oversized crown and a girl’s short haircut.
“And what is she holding?” Charlotte added through a big-throated laugh, referencing the ball in the statue’s left hand.
Emily looked back…she had seen that little statue since before she could remember, so often that she had never really thought about what it was. Just a comforting thing that was a sign of being at Nana’s.
“Mmm, I don’t know,” Emily felt embarrassed, but protective; resentful, but not wanting to be weird in the eyes of her friends.
As Nana came back into the room, Charlotte and Taylor slid back in their chairs, stopping their laughing conspicuously.
Nana sat down, grinning as she looked from girl to girl. “So, what’s the secret?”
Feeling caught, Emily scrambled. “Umm, Charlotte talked to a boy today…”
“Nooo…” the girls squealed and put their hand on their mouths.
“Ooohhh, well, make sure he’s nice to you,” laughed Nana. “Ok now girls, I think you’ve had enough sugar for the day.” She rose and started clearing their cups and cookies. “You can go play in the backyard if you want, I’ve got to get ready for my bridge game.”
“Thanks,” the girls sung out in unison. Emily gave Nana a quick hug, and the three friends went out the screen door, into the backyard.
They sat under the one old tree out there, picking the dandelions from around them.
“Why’d you say I talked to a boy?” asked an upset Charlotte.
“I don’t know, I didn’t want her to know you were making fun of her statue,” Emily returned.
“It wasn’t just me, it was all of us. It’s creepy.”
Emily just looked, hurt for her grandmother, confused at why Charlotte would attack like that.
“I’m going,” said Charlotte, standing up suddenly and walking quickly past the house to the street.
“Me too,” Taylor added, jumping up and running after Charlotte, joining her to walk together down the street and out of sight.
The next day at recess, the girls all gathered to pick teams for a soccer game, as usual. Charlotte was the best player and would always be the captain of one team. She picked Taylor first, and on her next few turns picked all the girls around Emily. In the end, she was the last one left, with Charlotte’s turn to pick; but Charlotte just said “ok, let’s start”, and they all ran out to play. Emily went to the swings by herself.
At the end of the school day, Emily thought she’d make up with her friends, get things back to normal. She waited outside after last bell, forcing a smile. When Charlotte and Taylor came out, she fell in step next to them, pretending nothing had happened, and said “so, Nana’s today?”
“No,” Charlotte said brusquely, stopping. And then, turning in the other direction, she said back over her shoulder, “I’m going this way.”
“Sorry,” Taylor whispered, and ran after Charlotte.
Emily skipped Nana’s herself that day, thinking she wouldn’t enjoy it alone.
At school the next day, Taylor sat down next to Emily at recess. She pulled an iPhone out of her pocket, held it out between them.
“No way!” Emily whispered.
“Yeah! My parents got them for the whole family! I’m the first one in our whole class!”
“Yeaaahhh,” Emily stared at the phone.
“Anyway, don’t tell a lot of people,” Taylor whispered seriously. She held the phone up and the girls leaned in and smiled as she clicked a selfie. “Let’s talk after school; I have an idea.”
Emily ran out the front door at the end of school to find Taylor waiting on the sidewalk. They quickly walked down the street together. “So,” Taylor began, “here’s what we do, to make it ok with Charlotte again.”
Emily felt anxious for the plan, for the chance to make things normal again. “What is it?”
“The statue,” Taylor said. “We get the creepy statue from your grandmother’s and take a bunch of funny pictures with it. She’ll laugh so hard!”
Emily felt something like a hiccup, but down in her chest. She didn’t want to choose between her friends and hurting Nana. “Oh, ok, yeah, ok.” She was staring at the ground.
“Can you get it today?” Taylor asked, excited. “We’ll do the pictures tonight or tomorrow,” she had stopped walking now because they were at the corner where Taylor had to turn left to go home. “I’ll call,” she said, and turned and walked away down her street.
Emily stood for a moment, thinking. She could go to Nana’s, and then tonight just tell Taylor that she never got the chance to grab the statue. She could do both things, impress her friends and not offend her grandmother.
Nana was not feeling well that day. “I’m sorry honey, I haven’t been to the store in the last few days,” she explained to Emily when she took her seat at the plastic-topped table. “How about some milk?” she asked, placing a small cup in front of the girl. “And then,” she went on, rummaging through some drawers with a strain in her voice. “Caramels, how about these?” She dropped three little gold-wrapped candies next to the milk cup, then sat down with a big exhale.
Emily just looked down, silently, her hand on her cup but not moving. “Oh angel, what’s wrong?” Nana reached up and touched Emily’s hair. She knows, thought Emily, that something’s wrong with my friends. Does she know about the statue plan too? How could she know either?
“No,” Emily said plainly, taking a sip of milk. “It’s fine, Nana.”
“Ok. Well, remember, you can tell me anything you need.”
They sat in silence for a few more minutes. Eventually Emily unwrapped a caramel and popped it into her mouth. She looked at nana and gave a little smile. Nana smiled back. “Well, ok, angel. I love you. I’m just feeling a bit tired. I’m going to go to bed. Stay as long as you want, ok?” She rose, kissed the girl on the top of the head, and walked to the other room.
“Bye, Nana,” Emily said plainly, turning to look at the statue as soon as she was alone. In a moment she was out the back door, sliding the statue into her backpack as she reached the street and turned for home. After dinner Taylor called the house, asking if she could come over to do homework with Emily. Alone in Emily’s bedroom just a few minutes later, they removed the statue from the bag. It felt cheap in Emily’s hands, light and plastic; the feel of the fabric reminded her of holiday decorations.
They took one picture with the statue leaning into frame, and Emily pretending she was running away from it, screaming. They did the same with Taylor. Then they took a close-up of the statue’s face. On that last one Taylor used a program from her phone and wrote across the bottom in horror-movie letters: “Charlotte, you’re next!” The two girls laughed through the whole thing, Taylor easily, Emily with effort, trying to let the good feeling her friend gave her push down the little burn in her stomach.
In the morning, statue in her backpack, Emily went downstairs for breakfast, anxious for school and recess and making Charlotte laugh and everything going back to normal. In the kitchen, though, her father already had his coat on, the trace of some tears in his eyes. He was moving about quickly, grabbing keys, talking on a cell phone. When he saw Emily he told the person on the phone that he had to go now; he handed Emily a muffin, saying, “eat this in the car; we have to go quick, Nana is in the hospital.”
Emily did not like the hospital, the smell like cleaning wipes and the machines and people being rolled down the hallways by silent, serious-faced women. Nana made a little smile at her as they walked into the room; she was sitting up, and when she waved her hand showed a little orange sticky patch on her hand, laid over with clear tape and something stuck in there, connected by a long hose to a clear bag of liquid hanging above her.
“Say hi to Nana,” Emily’s father whispered, gently pushing her forward.
“Hi,” Emily said, wide-eyed as she approached the bedside.
“Oh, my angel,” Nana offered with surprising strength in her voice. She reached out and stroked Emily’s hair, smiling.
Emily stood by as her father and Nana talked a little, medical things she couldn’t quite understand. A nurse came in and greeted everyone happily, looked at the machines and a notebook at the end of the bed, and left. The adults kept talking throughout.
Emily’s mind drifted off, to the statue in her backpack, sitting at home in the kitchen where she left it. She was thinking it all over, Charlotte and the pictures and the plan to all be friends again. She felt a little sick.
“Honey,” her father’s voice broke her focus.
“Have you seen it?” he asked.
“No, no,” Emily returned quickly, thinking again that somehow Nana knew something about her friends and the statue.
“Well then take a look,” he stepped out of the way as he pointed at a bouquet of flowers on the bedside table. “From uncle Billy. Nana says you like this kind”.
“Oh, yes,” she said with relief, not really seeing the flowers at all. “They’re great, I love them.” She felt stupid immediately for saying “love”; it was too much. Did nana know?
When they returned home that night, Emily grabbed her backpack from the kitchen and headed up to her room. She slid the statue out again. It still felt so cheap and fragile. She put it up on her desk, looked at it, tried to make sense of it so she could defend it to Charlotte and Taylor. But she noticed, then, something wrong. The hand was gone, the one holding the ball.
She wanted to cry immediately. She felt ashamed.
She picked up her backpack, dumped it out. She didn’t find anything among the books and pencils on the floor. She moved her hand around in the bag, digging her fingers into the corners blindly. She pulled out some pieces of candy wrapper, an eraser from the butt of a pencil, and, finally, a plastic hand holding a ball. She noticed, for the first time, the cross sticking out from the top of the ball. Stranger than she had thought.
She lined up the broken end of the hand with the spot that it had come off from the statue…it fit, but with a little chip of the plastic gone, so that it was a bit rough where the pieces were joined together. She ran downstairs and snuck the glue bottle from its drawer in the kitchen without her parents seeing, and carefully joined the hand back onto the statue. She held it for a long time, longer even than she thought it needed to be pressed there. Just in case.
She came and got the statue from her room the next day after school, put it in her bag and rode with her father again to the hospital. Nana was worse that day, all of the energy gone. She was laying back at more of an angle on the bed, breathing with more difficulty. When Emily’s father left for a phone call, the girl produced the statue out of the bag, brought it wordlessly to Nana, held it up onto the bed.
“Oh, angel,” Nana struggled to say. “I thought you might have this.”
“I’m sorry,” Emily started to cry.
“Angel, angel,” Nana reached out and stroked her hair. “It’s ok. Did you know my father brought this from Europe?” She wheezed between each sentence. “It was his mother’s. They say the original belonged to a very smart woman, like you. Theresa, in Spain. And she gave it to some people who needed it, and people kept giving it to each other like that.” Her wrinkled finger ran over the fabric, down the arm of the figure. “Oh, and he lost his hand.” He? Emily thought. “But you put it back. You gave him back his hand. Well, we should all show love to each other, like you did in putting his hand back. Children can teach us a lot.”
Emily did not understand anything, but she was crying. She had planned to tell a story, either that she went into Nana’s house so she could bring the statue to her, or that somehow she had just found it, like it was moved by some accident and she was just the person who came across it. But it didn’t matter now. She was already forgiven.
Emily left the statue in the room with Nana and went home with her father for the night. Later on she heard some noise in her house, her parents talking, the front door and a car starting. She went back to sleep. In the morning her father sat down next to her at breakfast, told her that Nana had died in the night. “She wanted you to have this.” He pulled up the statue, putting it on the table. Emily cried and cried, thinking of how Nana always stroked her hair, looking at the face of the cheap statue, feeling guilty.
She put the statue on the bedside table in her room, stared at it, its frills and crown and the glued-on hand with the ball and the cross. Nothing makes sense, she thought.
She didn’t go to school the rest of that week. There was a wake and a funeral and a lot of uncomfortable clothes and bad food and strangers talking to her. When it was all over, after the funeral and everyone coming over the house and eating, she went up to her room, alone finally, and looked at the statue again. She touched the hand she had broken and repaired, felt the rough little ridge that Nana had found so quickly. She did not understand Nana, but wanted her back. And she did understand Charlotte and Taylor, but didn’t care if she didn’t have them anymore.
The next Monday at school she found Taylor in the hallway. “OMG, where have you been?” Taylor was excited. “Charlotte loved the pictures! We laughed so much!”
“Can I see again?” asked Emily.
Taylor pulled out the phone, entered her code to unlock it, and pulled up the photos, tilting the screen toward Emily. Emily snatched the phone, turned her back. Taylor started grabbing immediately, reaching across Emily, trying to move around in front of her. “What are you doing? Give it back!” She shouted.
Emily continued to turn so that her friend was behind her. She moved her fingers quickly over the screen—delete, delete, delete, all of the pictures of the statue gone now. She wordlessly handed the phone back to Taylor, brow furrowed and mouth open. “What is wrong with you! Weirdo.”
Emily said nothing, just turned and walked away down the hall. Charlotte was walking towards her, a huge smile. “Emily! Those pictures were…” she started with excitement but stopped, as Emily strode straight by without even looking at her.
The three girls were friends again by the next week. All was forgotten, the photos and the statue never mentioned. Every night, before going to bed, Emily would touch the glued crack of the reattached hand. She had broken something, but she fixed it. She hoped that was enough, for Nana, for herself.