Periodically we ask a contributor from The Fourth River to reflect back on their published piece, offering insight into their process, tracing the trajectory of the work, or telling some tangentially relevant story about it. Today’s reflection is by Jill Christman, whose piece, “The Stone Pear,” appeared first in Issue 10, and most recently, in our online issue, The Best of the First Ten, where you can read it on page 94.
The Frog Slip of Time
by Jill Christman
“A Stone Pear” began in the most obvious place: in a bowl of exquisitely crafted faux fruit on the gleaming wood of my great aunt’s dining room table in New Milford, Connecticut—circa 1977. This essay contains many firsts: I wrote it ten years ago when my first child, Ella, was a toddler, taking her first careful steps around our house in Muncie, Indiana (she was never a reckless, careening baby, but my goodness, she did love to put things in her mouth!)—circa 2005. Also, it was the first thing I ever wrote that I called an essay. What does it say about my essay-writing life that it began with my child-self’s attempt to bite into a juicy pear whose tawny skin refused to yield under my sharp teeth? A pear that turned out to be a rock? Well, that’s another essay entirely—this one was about survival, not writing.
The point here is that “A Stone Pear” began with a real pear—except that I was separated from this pear by at least one thousand miles and twenty-eight years, and in no way had my stone pear ever been a real pear, right? No matter. I had carried the heft of that pear around in my brain for nearly three decades. I started there. With no idea where I was going or what I might be trying to say, I trusted my instinct that if the pear had lodged so determinedly in my temporal lobe, well, it was worth poking around in the fruit bowl of memory to see what else might be nestled in the pear’s vicinity. So I wrote the pear, letting images beget images and memories attach to memories, each more sensory than the last, not all of them making the cut, and more arriving even this morning as I return again to that old house in Connecticut to see what I can see: I remember the exact quality of light in the filter recesses carved into the side of the underground pool where the tiny black frogs sought refuge—refracted blue, rippling on the roof of the frogs’ alcove with the disturbance of my paddling feet. As I wrote “A Stone Pear,” time folded over and then seemed to slip away entirely, a rescued frog making his goodbye jump into the thick foliage of the orange daylilies. The pool was spring-fed and everything smelled like moss on cool rocks, so clean we were allowed to cup our hands and drink from it.
For all the real nature that emerged as I wrote, mystone pear, the one I loved so much I wanted to plant it like a seed in the dark loam of memory and make it grow, had always been an artist’s facsimile of a pear. Considering how art begets art, and the frog-slip of time, I think now about how I’d love to meet the sculptor who sat in his studio with the real pears of inspiration. I have an image of him in my mind based on nothing more than my imagination, but I will confess: the man who carved my stone pear bears a striking resemblance to Pinocchio’s Geppetto. He is alone in his shop, white hair wild, examining pear after pear through the high-power spectacles balanced on the tip of his nose. How many pears must he have squeezed, stroked, and held under the lamp to get my pear just right? How many must he have eaten, the sweet juices running down his rough chin?
Hammering and chiseling, grinding and rasping, he carved a pear I carry in memory—for me, sweeter than Proust’s madeleine, cooler to the touch than the toy trains Nabokov ran over frozen Russian puddles, more solid than the little acorn on Woolf’s blowing blind in St. Ives. Writing my maiden essay, watching my first baby taste everything she could pull to her mouth, I followed the memory of that solid stone pear beneath my shocked teeth to this conclusion: lives can be saved by art and beauty and kindness, even just a glimpse now and then. Mine was.
Thank you, Stone Carver. Thank you, Aunt Mollie. And for you, sweet Ella, know that anything is possible.