Fiction: Pawpaw Cultivation by Gabrielle Griffis

This collage, by the author, includes John J. Audubon’s Yellow-billed Cuckoo, which is in the public domain.

You acquire pawpaws from your neighbor. He leaves them on the front step in a bag with some homemade muffins. They’re past their prime and practically fermented, but you’re not going to eat them. You want to grow them, in the same way you tried to sporulate mushrooms, but failed.

The pawpaws are mushy and custard-like as you extract their seeds. The seeds are ovate and brown and most are larger than a penny. They’re also covered in pulp. You wash them and wrap them in wet paper towels before sticking them in a jar in the fridge to be left for a hundred days.

All the leaves fall from the trees. Aster and goldenrod wither. Mottlegills and waxcaps emerge and melt. The ground freezes. You open the fridge hundreds of times and don’t think about the seeds. Snow falls. Snails hibernate. Cardinals eat dried flower heads. You have a drink on New Year’s. Thousands of cars pass by your house.

You research the longest dormant seeds and come across an article about how a team of scientists germinated 32,000-year-old Siberian flower seeds. Scientists  call the permafrost a vault of ancient genes. You wish you could care about the repositories of long dead squirrels. You wonder what else has survived in the frozen regions of the planet. Sometimes you hunch in the shower and pretend you’re a rock, enjoying the centuries as waves lap over you.

There are many feelings you haven’t experienced in a long time, and you’re losing your ability to care about the sublime. The sublime doesn’t care about you.

You watch blue jays carry acorns in their beaks and wonder how many seeds were stored by prehistoric birds. You vacuum spider webs and daddy long legs and think about hurricanes. You think about meteors and volcanic eruptions and how nature doesn’t care about your plans.

You sit on your friend’s couch and speculate about chemistry and wonder about all the people you would liked to have sex with but didn’t. The couch is yellow and suede and smells like essential oils and sweat. Your throat is dry and your friend asks, “What are we really talking about?”

“Disappointment,” you reply.

Spring arrives. Hellebore appears. You put two seeds in soil under a grow lamp and wait for something to happen, but the conditions don’t seem right. Conditions are everything and they determine whether magic is possible. Seeds require sunshine, water, nutrients in order to unfold. You spend your life trying to create the conditions for growth and magic, tending the garden of your brain, waiting to see what happens. The instructions are within you, but can’t emerge without the right circumstances, like the daffodils that failed to flower because you replanted their bulbs in shade.

You think if scientists can germinate 32,000-year-old seeds you can at least sprout some pawpaws, so you wait until the weather warms and plant them in little pots, until taproots form. The truth is, you don’t have much hope for these seeds because aside from some old potting soil, you know you probably haven’t created ideal growing conditions, but they grow nonetheless. Plenty of people grow but never flower or become trees.

The summer is a drought.  A bird steals one of your seeds. A chipmunk takes another. They could have had a hundred seeds if they only waited. There are still a few left, so you relocate the pots hoping to buy some time from evolution’s bottleneck. If only you could see a little further, think a little more complexly, maybe you would feel differently—become something unexpected and colorful like a chrysanthemum or a dahlia. Maybe you’re just waiting for rain.  It took four billion, four hundred and thirteen million years for flowers to appear on earth and another several million for pawpaw trees to appear after that. You spend another hour researching pawpaw cultivation, tweak the conditions, and hope for the best.

Gabrielle Griffis (she/hers) is a musician, writer, and multimedia artist. She works as a librarian on Cape Cod. Her fiction has been published in Wigleaf, Split Lip Magazine, Monkeybicycle, XRAY, Necessary Fiction, CHEAP POP, Matchbook, and elsewhere. You can visit her website at or follow her at @ggriffiss.

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