infant of prague

infant of prague

frances noelle

sara rados  

A caregiver once called Paul “one of the good ones.” He didn’t have dementia, like some of the other residents, but he was hard of hearing, so I had to speak slowly and loudly when I talked to him. He was 85 years oldborn in 1938, ten years before my late grandfatherand used a wheelchair. He had kind brown eyes, and pink-tinted skin that sagged on his face.

I worked as a receptionist at Paul’s residencyan assisted living facility for senior citizensthe summer after my first year of college. It was a place with some peculiar combination of the permanent and the temporary, a home and a hotel: gray carpeting, beige walls, softly lit hallways. In those halls, I’d pass through a mysteriously warm patch of air or be hit with a cloud of stench, likely due to the pads residents wore for urinary incontinence. But it was never too bad. I would pass the nurses in their blue scrubs pushing the med cart, the caregivers or the residents meandering down the halls in their wheelchairs and walkers, most of whom would wave hello or make light conversation.

Paul would often roll his wheelchair up to the reception desk and talk to me. He and his wife Sue were living here together, and they were some of the friendliest residents. I told Paul that I liked to write, and to my surprise, he told me he used to work as a writer for the Post Gazette. I looked at him then, trying to picture him with a smoother face and brighter eyes, the clicking of a typewriter beneath his fingertips. I imagined young journalists handing him pages and him scanning those pages for edits. I thought about the life he used to have and wondered what little details I was missing.

One day, he asked, “Are you Catholic?”

“No, I’m not,” I replied. After a few minutes of awkward silence, I asked if there was anything I could help him with.

“Oh, I was just wondering if you could look something up on the computer for me.”

“Yeah, of course.”

I didn’t think he knew exactly how to pronounce whatever he was interested in, because he seemed to fumble with the words. I handed him a pen and pad. On it, he wrote Infant of Prague.

“Is it a saint?” I asked. “No, no.”

I searched online and found that the Infant of Prague was an object: a wooden statue of the infant Jesus draped in lace, standing in a church in the Czech Republic.

But it wasn’t a picture of the statue Paul wantedit was information. So, I found an article from a religious organization called The League of the Miraculous, which included a summary of the original Infant’s history. I set the text into a document, and after some minutes haggling with the printer, I told Paul I managed to get it printed out.

“Oh, you did?” There was a delighted surprise to his words.

I retrieved the papers and handed them to Paul. His face lit up, as if I were handing him something deeply sentimental, not just some article I’d found really quickly online. “Oh, thank you, thank you!”

“No problem.”

Afterwards, I went out to the porch to sweep and water the flowers. I caught a glimpse of him reading the article through the window. He was showing it to another resident, talking animatedly, and I wondered what or why had motivated him to request it in the first place.

Eventually, he told me it was because he owned an Infant statue himself.

“Do you want to see the statue?” he asked me the next day. It was a weekend, so the visitor traffic was slow. I abandoned the reception desk and followed him as he wheeled down the hall to his room.

I hesitated in the doorway. I remembered the training videos I’d watched when I was first hired here: this place is their home, and we are guests in their home, the video had explained. I went red in the face, suddenly feeling like I was intruding.

“For goodness’ sakes, come in, come in!” Paul laughed, waving as he watched me stand awkwardly on the threshold.

I stepped inside and let the door swing closed behind me. The room was warm, bathed in yellow light from a lamp. His wife Sue was sitting in a recliner chair watching television; she smiled when she saw me. Next to her was a desk, cluttered with things like porcelain decor, clocks, plants, frames, and tri-folded papers that looked like neglected bills. Sue retrieved the statue from the desk and passed it to me.

Paul’s Infant was maybe eight inches in height. His face was white porcelain, and He was draped in fabrics that were red, white, and gold. They felt soft against my fingertips. An English-style crown sat loosely upon His head. Jesus’s left hand held a globe and crosswhat I learned to be a symbol for Christ’s position as king of the worldand the right hand, which made the gesture of a blessing.

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

As I admired the statue, I was reminded of the significance of it, even though I wasn’t Catholic. Lauren Olamina, the protagonist in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, believes that change is the only constant in the universe, and therefore, God is change. As I held that statue in my hands, the history of the infant Jesus and Paul’s possession of it hanging in the air between us, I thought of Lauren.

But what did Paul think of when he looked at it? I appreciated the statue for its beauty, its artistry, and its symbolism. But surely, he must have some deeper relation to it, or he wouldn’t have asked me to print that article. Perhaps it was a tangible way to remind him of the truth of his faith. A surety. A reminder that God was always looking down on him, like an anchor, of sorts.

“Even though you’re not Catholic,” Paul told me, “Maybe in your religion, you’ll remember this.”

I didn’t know how to tell him I didn’t think I was religious. “This way,” Paul said.

I handed the Infant back to Sue and followed Paul further into the living space. The room we’d been standing in was technically Sue’s, although it was connected to Paul’s by a shared bathroom. I saw the detachable shower head, the white tile floor, the bench where Paul must sit while he was assisted with washing himself.

Paul’s desk was also cluttered, although with instruction sheets, paints, wood, tools, and metal pieces. Near the front sat a wooden car that had been half-assembled. “Paul likes to tinker,” an aide had told me once.

The desk reminded me acutely of my grandfather. I could almost smell the cigarette smoke of his plaid shirt, see him furnishing his model trains with shaking fingers. He’d died a few years earlier from lung cancer. I wondered if he’d ever been able to tell things were changing, if he could feel the strain on his body when he breathed. I wondered if he’d prayed.

“Wow,” I said, returning to Paul and his tinkering. “That’s impressive.” “Eh.” Paul shrugged. “Somethin’ to do.”

Until what? But I couldn’t finish the thought.

It turned out that Paul had a second Infant statue in this room. This one was taller, maybe a foot in height, and the robes were more elaborate. I could see the globe and the cross more clearly, situated in Jesus’s left hand. Lavender flowers bloomed from vases on either side of the statue.

“It’s a nice centerpiece,” Paul said.

I nodded in agreement. He gave me a tour of the rest of his room: the tinkering desk, the bed, the iPad he said he couldn’t use very well, a Bible verse scrawled out in pencil and taped to one of his shelves. I was distinctly reminded of the decorations my friends showed me when I’d toured their college dorms. This wasn’t much different, I thought. And then I realized that Paul must think of me as a friend.


My grandmother also lived at the residency. She was in her seventies, and after my grandfather passed away, she’d moved out of her house and into a small apartment. But then she fell, and suddenly she needed a higher level of care than the apartment complex could provide her. 

While I sat at reception, Grandma would sit in the lobby and gaze out the window. 

Sometimes she’d talk to me. Or to Diane, a middle-aged woman with curly hazelnut hair, a soft voice, and a kind smile. I could never figure out if Diane was a caregiver or if she just visited often because she was friendly. I knew her father was living at the facility. She was one of the few visitors who called me by name. 

One day, I overheard Diane talking to a group of residents in the lobby. They were discussing the Catholic priest that came inI knew they had a Bible group here, although I wasn’t sure if they had Mass on-siteand then the discussion moved to confession. I listened, wondering what a Catholic person in their seventies or eighties would confess. That they had said something rude to a nurse that morning? Regretted leaving a spouse? Or something smaller, like confessing that they’d stolen a candy bar as a kid? Would they even remember something like that? 

I thought of the dementia training I’d gone through when I was first hired. The training explained that for residents with dementia, thoughts flow in and out. They’ll remember something one day and forget it the next. Dementia is different from normal forgetfulness because it’s unusual, intense, and can happen at any moment. Like, maybe someone puts their car keys in the bathroom sink, instead of on the hook by the door. Maybe they think the sister who died in 1997 is just outside, waiting to take them out for a birthday dinner. They might even fall into a panic episode without any reasonable cause. 

Memories flash. Realities warp. 

God is change. 

I wondered, then, if that was the reason so many residents here were religious. When worldly life became unfaithful to them, they had to find faith in something elsesomething they’d known to be true their whole lives, and that would be eternal, in this life and the next. 


I’d seen this man’s file pulled up on the desktop: his name was Roy. I’d been working for a few weeks the first time he wheeled up to the reception desk, or rather the door, like he was about to come inside the little office. Roy said the same thing to me every day: “I don’t feel so good, Miss. I’m sick to my stomach.” 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I’d say. 

“I think I’m just gonna go lay down.” “Okay. I hope you feel better.” “Goodnight, miss,” he’d say. 

It was this same interaction for weeks on end. I liked that he called me miss; it made me feel like a 1950s secretary, typing away on a typewriter, sporting a poodle skirt with my hair in ribbons. Answering the phone and taking messages for men making business deals down the hall yes, it’s just there on the right, sir. Thank you, miss. It felt like he’d pulled me into a time capsule. 

Once, Roy seemed to perk up and asked me my name. 

“Abby,” he said, repeating it back to me. “Well, goodnight, Abby.” “Goodnight.” 

I was Abby for a few more interactions, until he forgot my name and I became “Miss” again. I wondered if it was bad that I liked being called “Miss” more than I did Abby. For some reason I was feeling more comfortable being alienated from the real world, pulled into whatever world Roy was living in instead. 

Roy told me things sporadically, like his mind was an ocean and his thoughts were rolling up in waves. He graduated in 1964 from Shaler High SchoolI know this for sure, because he 

showed me the date on his diploma. He loved cars. He had a brother named Wayne, and a sister-in-law named Chris, and he used to work at H.J. Heinz. He was Catholic. 

I also knew Roy was an ex-Marine, because every once in a while, a story about his time in combat would wash up on the beaches of his memory. Boot camp was rough, he saidthey’d have to run twenty, thirty miles a day and take a canteen of water with them to stay hydrated. I looked down at his loafers and loose gray sweats, trying to imagine him in camouflaged army gear instead.  

“How many years?” I asked.  

Six, he said. At the Pentagon. They were stationed along the perimeter, with the goal of trying to keep spies out. And if the intruders shot, they were permitted to shoot back.  

“But I never killed a man,” he said. “Not worth it.” 

But he did shoot someone in the shoulder, aiming to detain. I pictured Roy as a young man in uniform with a rifle, then the sound of a gunshot and a bullet piercing skin. I pictured a bloody, mangled shoulder. Guards hauling the intruder to his feet. 

I wondered if Roy knew other soldiers who did kill. I wondered what it would feel like to carry the weight of watching someone die. 

God is change. 

If God is change, and death is a form of change, does that make God death? I didn’t think I believed God was death. Maybe Roy did. Maybe Lauren did. 

Roy told me he’d wanted an honorable discharge. That was the one thing his brother told him to make sure of. In fact, he painted me a picture of the day he came home after four years in service: 

It was morning. A young Roy had already boarded a Greyhound bus for a full day’s worth of driving. As I understand it, the bus was full of other soldiers and a drill sergeant, a goofy man who shouted and whooped the whole ride there. The bus stopped at Scotty’s Diner, a 

place that used to sit on the edge of Route 8, and they got breakfast. Roy had scrambled eggs and toast. I wondered if he’d felt any butterflies in his stomach, trying to keep the food down with his legs bouncing up and down underneath a Formica table. 

He also remembered the exact address of his home, 334 Lehr Avenuehe made sure I understood it was pronounced like leer, but spelled L-E-H-R. That day, he burst through the door and his mother was there, standing in the entryway. They both started cryingRoy admitted as much. I pictured him as a twenty-something man in a marine’s uniform, running teary-eyed into his mother’s arms, his duffel dropped and forgotten on the parlor floor. 

“It was an emotional day.” Roy said this fondly but factually, like he’d told this story a hundred times and thought about it even more times. “Which you can understand.” 

I knew I never would, but I nodded anyway. 


I learned Roy’s first girlfriend was named Dorris. She was a nice girl that he dated in high school, and when he talked about her, he smiled. 

One day, he came home with an extra hundred from work and told Dorris to buy a nice coat. That coat made a few of the boys turn their heads when they saw her walking down the street with him. I couldn’t help smiling, thinking of a girl in expensive fur and heels, walking down a frosty street as snowflakes fell on her eyelashes. 

On Roy’s graduation day, Dorris went to the church with him before they all went out to dinner. He said he’d dressed “sharp” because she would be there. And yet again my mind filled 

in details, picturing a young boy fiddling with a tie in the mirror of a church bathroom, his lips turned up in a nervous smile. 

So why didn’t they get married? Dorris had wanted to get married. But Roy said he didn’t want the commitmentin a dismissive kind of way, like the love between the two of them was somehow beyond such a tedious institution as marriage. All that paperwork, the hassle. Wasn’t worth it.  

“And I’m Catholic,” he said. “So, I don’t believe in divorce. Unless someone’s cheating, you know.” 

God is change. Marriage is a big change. Supposedly it’s holy, or maybe it isn’t, but I tend to believe a declaration of love that big should be something like holy. Is divorce holy too, though? If it’s change and it’s inevitable and it’s really for the best, shouldn’t that be something God would be all right with? 


Later, Roy asked me for the time. It surprised him how much of it had passed.  

“What matters is Jesus gives you time,” he said, almost absentmindedly. “And the good Lord gives you time so you can use it well.” 

Does God create time, then? Maybe God doesn’t so much create time as is time. Or maybe God just gives us life, and life happens to come with time. It’s kind of a package deal. 

What would Roy say if I told him I wasn’t Catholic? He always said it was good when people believed in God, that they’d end up in heaven. Would he think I’d go to hell because I wasn’t Catholic? Even if I’d spent all those hours listening to him, showing him that I was his friend, that I thought he mattered, and his stories mattered, and that we all mattered? 


The first time I saw Roy smile, he was telling stories about his car. 

It was probably the longest conversation I’d ever had with him, and it got interrupted more than once for me to answer the phone or sign for deliveries. It didn’t help that Roy wasn’t telling me any of the stories in chronological order. Instead, he told me about his life in moments, like paint splatters on a piece of abstract art. Sometimes it was hard to see the whole picture. I caught onto common nounspeople, places, things. The moments flashed as if they were playing on an old tape reel: 

There was Roy’s car, a copper Cougar that he’d bought used for a good price. Leather steering wheel and seats. New Michelin tires. He said it was like it came right off the showroom floor, the nicest car he’d ever seen. He, his brother Wayne, and his friend Bob all painted it navy blue with paint that Roy had purchased from a shop off a highway. I pictured a group of young men sitting in the driveway of a 1950s suburban house, overalls splattered with grease, smiling and laughing under the Pennsylvania sun. 

Then, a flash, and there was Wayne lying awake one night. He had a tumor that spread to his brain, and so needed to be driven to a hospital. Roy and his brother carried him through the doors of the Presbyterian Hospital, the “Presby,” he called it. I pictured red crosses, panicked doctors whisking a man away under white fluorescents, the camera angle too blurry and disoriented to know what had happened. Just chaos. 

A flash of a new memory: there were curvy roads. Roy was driving around Shaler township, humming in the driver’s seat. He came to the top of a hill and made a left at a stop 

sign. He was coming home from workhe worked at H.J. Heinz in the cityand pulled up to the front of his house, the one with the cream-colored Sedan parked out front. 

Another flash. Wayne again, one night zooming up a hill because he was a good driver, albeit a fast one. Roy had been nervous about him speeding, and rightfully so. They crested the hill and found a cop at the top, who wrote Wayne an eighty-dollar ticket that he couldn’t afford. Oh, the embarrassment on Wayne’s face, the redness that must’ve shown in his cheeks as the cop wrote him up on a yellow pad. Still, when Wayne told his mother what happened, she offered to loan him the money for it. But of course, Wayne was grateful, and paid her back after the next payday. 

Another flash. Later in her life, his mother, Mary, ended up in the hospital. Roy had lain her body out in the dark grass, but managed to get her into the car and to emergency services. I never caught what happened to Mary, but I imagine it was something like a stroke or a bad fall. Fortunately, she was discharged a few days later. Roy said, thank God they had good tires. 

God is change

God is unexpected hospital visits and sudden speeding tickets and blessed reliefs and horrible tragedies. God is Roy’s dead father and his dead mother and everything I’m not catching in between all these scattered stories that have only one common thread of a subject. God is a projector operator. He’s a 1960s man in a suit and fedora, rolling memories in black and white, trying His best not to let them flicker. 

God works at Michelin. He makes good tires. 


Jill was a spritely old woman who wore a pink sweater and bobby pins in her short white hair. She was my favorite resident not because she was nice, but because she was nice to me especially. She always leaned in when she spoke, like we were at a slumber party sharing secrets, and her eyes always lit up when they met mine. Once, she even told me she loved me. 

“You’re so pretty,” Jill liked to say, standing in front of the reception desk with its windows pulled open and curtains tucked back to expose me, “just so cute sitting in there!” 

That was Jill’s thing: she loved to tell me how pretty I was. I’d never really thought I was pretty, but still, it was sweet of her. 

The first time she laid out a compliment, I thought she was just being polite, but the more she said it the more I realized there might be something underneath the politeness. 

“Your generation…” she told me as I passed her in the lobby. She shook her head, smiling, looking me up and down, “Must be all tall and thin!” 

I laughed awkwardly. “Aw, thank you.” 

Another day she said, “I don’t understand. Every time I see you, you just get prettier and prettier.” 

“Thank you.” 

And then, another day: “You’re so pretty.” “Aw, you’re so sweet. Thanks.” 

“I just wanna” And at this point she reached her hands out in the air between us, and ripped at it like she was trying to rip me right in half, “take some of your… meat.” 

She laughed. I laughed too, despite being thoroughly disturbed. I think it was because I knew she didn’t have any bad intentions, even if she did sound a bit like the witch from Hansel and Gretel. She’d simply been struggling to come up with the right words, although the words 

she did manage to come up with were not appropriate at all to the situation. The whole thing seemed so morbidly ridiculous. 

It was only later I realized the word Jill had actually been looking for was youth. 

I wondered if Jill saw me as a girl with a ponytail and a floral T-shirt, with bright eyes and unwrinkled skin and a body that could move up and down with no problem. I wonder if she saw me and felt jealousy, but not in the toxic kind of way. In the aching kind of way. Like if a friend were an amazing artist, and you couldn’t help admiring their beautiful paintings, suddenly feeling bad that you couldn’t achieve anything near as good if you tried. 

No matter how hard anyone tries, people can’t age backwards. 

I wonder if Jill looked at me and saw all that she used to have and would never have againalthough, maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she was just happy I was youthful. Maybe seeing me was nostalgic for her, a reminder of easier days and freer nights. I was proof that youthfulness existed elsewhere in the world, even if it didn’t exist in her, and for that reason there was something to be happy about. God is change, after all. 


Jill’s niece and her niece’s children came in to visit. She held them by the shoulders and turned them towards me like she was showing them off in a pageant. The niece was a smiling woman in her 30s; the children were an elementary-age girl in a tank top and athletic shorts, and a younger brother with choppy brown hair who still held his mother’s hand. Jill’s skin was pale white, but her family’s was tan, like they’d spent too much time in the sun whereas Jill had spent too little. 

“This is my family,” she said. 

“Oh, they’re very nice,” I said, because I’d met them earlier in the lobby and I felt weird commenting on their physical appearances. 

Jill turned down the hall and saw Sarah, our twenty-something activities director. Sarah was a bubbly, thin blonde girl who reminded me of Barbie. I loved Sarah, and we’d become pretty good friends in the month we worked together. The first thing she said when Jill brought her family in was, “Oh, they’re so beautiful!” 

A strange feeling settled in my stomach. I was reminded a little too much of my grandparents’ friends, and the bizarre way they looked at my sister and me. How we were shown off like exhibits for being young and pretty and pride-inducing. 

For a second, though, I tried to look at it from their perspective. I imagined myself as older and grayer, sitting in a wheelchair with a blanket over knobby knees. I imagined imagining being younger, and seeing my grandchildren and great-grandchildren as living proof that youthfulness was not just a fantasy. It was a gift I’d been given once, though taken for granted. I’d be damned if I let any of my own family forget how special that gift was. 

“You’re beautiful,” I’d tell my granddaughter sometime in this future life. And I wouldn’t be lying. 


The first time Roy talked about death was a bit of a shock. 

“The good Lord can come and take me,” he said in that shaky, worried tone of his. I blinked a few times in surprise. It was like he was a priest and had suddenly splashed me with ice-cold holy water. “I know I’ll go to heaven. I believe in Jesus. I’m sick to my stomach.” 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Another bad day?” “The good Lord can come and take me…” 

At this moment Jill came trotting down the hall, smiling in her little pink sweater. “Hi Jill,” I said. 

Roy looked up and moaned. “Oh, I haven’t eaten today, I’m sick to my stomach. Pray for me tonight. I’m going to see my mother again. This is it for me, the good Lord can come and take me, I’m going to heaven” 

“Oh, pssh!” Jill swatted him lightly, like she was the older sister who was sick of his complaining. “You’re not going anywhere. Eat a deviled egg sandwich or something.” 

I suppressed a laugh. Apparently, Jill’s solution to mortality was deviled eggs. I had a brief vision of her brandishing a plate of those hors d’oeuvreswhite-shelled eggshells and swirly yellow paste sprinkled with pepperout at the grim reaper, shouting, stay back! 

At any rate, Jill promised Roy she’d remember him in her prayers tonight. She spoke low in his ear, and I couldn’t understand all of the things she was saying, but I think they were made to reassure him. Her body language kept up her role of the older sister: a sigh, an eye roll, a pat on the back. When she was done, she flashed a conspiratorial smile at me and offered to push Roy back into his room. 

I was surprised at the whole interaction, but I guess I shouldn’t have been, because when you get that old it seems like it’s more depressing not to think about the inevitable. Near the end of my great-gram’s life, all her friends were passing away, and she got sick of people asking how 

they died. Her standard answer to the cause of death question became: “She quit breathin’.” Her daughtermy gramliked making morbid jokes about which of my family were the nicest. If my mom said something mildly insulting, for example, Gram would point to me with a smile in her eyes and say, “Alright, when I’m gone, she’s getting the jewelry!” 

Sometimes I wonder, if I died, who I would give my jewelry to. Maybe I’d give my necklaces to Paul. He could put them around his Infant of Prague statue. 


There is a poem called “Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue, Teach Me How to Pray.” I know because it was the next thing Paul wrote down on my notepad for me to print out for him. I was excited when I learned it was a poem. I felt like Paul and I were in on some literature-lovers secret in which we searched for faith and found it in the written word. 

I read the poem and its history on some Catholic websites. “Lovely Lady” was originally published in 1926 by Roman Catholic poet Mary Dixon Thayer, but it was popularized in the 1950s by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who had a particular fondness for the Virgin Mary. At one time a television priest, Sheen would often ask his audiences what it would be like not to discuss the mother of a household. How shocking and awful would that be, he wrote. And so, Sheen used the “Lovely Lady” poem as a form of veneration, to call for Mary’sJesus’s mother’sintercession in prayer. 

It really is a beautiful poem. It has a nice rhythm, and presents the image of an ambiguous narrator admiring the ethereal Mary, donned in blue robes and bouncing her baby Son on her knees. The narrator is wondering about Mary’s motherhood, humbly questioning if she 

sings to Him, holds His hand, tells Him stories. Finally, they ask if Jesus cares to hear them, how they should pray: 

Lovely Lady dressed in blue — Teach me how to pray! 

God was just your little boy, And you know the way. 

Paul showed the other residents the poem when I printed it for him. What did they all see in that last line, And you know the way? I think about Paul leading me down the hallway to his room, excited to show me his Infant statue. I think about Roy riding home in the Greyhound, about him and Dorris attending church together, about him speeding through the night to save his dying brother. I think about Jill leading her young family towards Sarah, showing them off. I think about all the residents going to confession on Sundays. I think about praying to the Virgin Mary. 

I think about Lauren, God is change. And I think I can believe it. 

frances noelle
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Frances Noelle is a second-year publishing, editing, and creative writing major. In addition to Essay, she has been published in the 2022 FUSE National 24-hour literary magazine Moondial. Her favorite genres to write in are fantasy, contemporary, young adult, and queer literature.