by L.P. Lee
It’s a relief to feel cool air on my face. Here in the woods there’s smoke in the air, my uncle’s hearth puffing clouds into the sky. The sky is a bright calm blue, the trees a lush green. I walk up the stone steps towards my uncle’s door.
He’s become a hermit, my family says. No one’s seen him for years. He’s lived a long time though there’s some confusion over the exact years he spans. To be precise, he’s my great-uncle and a mystery to this side of the family. It’s rumoured he’s passed the 100-year mark and that he may even be reaching 120, but of course this can’t be true. He’s been an elusive question mark for the best part of twenty years. The last time he made an appearance was at a funeral in Busan in 1992.
It was strange that he disappeared amid unfinished business of all sorts. There was a real huff about it in the family. One day he was there and the next: poof! Gone.
He was a successful businessman in his day. High up in the transport industry, but there were stories he’d once been connected to gangpae mafia types.
He had inauspicious beginnings as the fourth son of the fourth “wife” of a business mogul. As a child, he was said to have been extraordinarily sensitive, an easy target for the bigger boys, and to combat this, he invested much of his youthful energy into learning how to fight. He became a skillful street-fighter and later, when he opened his first nightclubs at the age of twenty-two (through funds of dubious origin), they said he didn’t need security: thugs left his venues alone on the strength of his reputation.
When my mother was a little girl sitting on his knee, he told her that street-fighting was a superior form of struggle because of its noble unpredictability. He said that disciplines like taekwondo were constrained by their ritual and civility, while street-fighting returned the man to his primitive state and honest animal senses.
Over the years, he amassed wealth and changed into a man of refined cultivation. He was always seen in a sharply cut grey suit and smartly polished shoes. He never spoke about street-fighting again and was popular at family gatherings: he’d bring boxes of the juiciest apples and sweetest pears, or bottles of fine rice wine, or caskets of fragrant dried shrimp. He’d surprise everyone with an icebox of king crab, pincers as long as an arm, and jars of civet coffee from business trips to the Philippines. During the lunar New Year celebrations, his envelopes were always the thickest.
Since his disappearance, all we heard of him were a few words scribbled onto letters of surprising brevity. Now and then, a parcel of goods might arrive on the doorstep: a slab of French cheese, a packet of Norwegian smoked salmon, a box of dried sea slugs for old time’s sake.
His house is hidden away behind trees. This is a virgin plot of land; no development can be seen for miles. A clean breeze blows and I breathe in the air hungrily.
The city I left behind is a glittering jewel by night, full of neon promises and beautiful people. But by day its ugliness is exposed: identical apartment blocks rise to greet the sky like a line of tombstones for giants. The people look hurried and unhappy. Advertisements everywhere tell them that they do not deserve to be content with the way that they are: their clothes and houses and faces can always be improved. They’re manicured and groomed like the little trees old people keep in pots.
All the nature in the city is confined: the parks are carefully kept, footpaths show the way, there are small fences everywhere. The sky seems to have been sucked of its colour.
Here in the mountains the air is delicious. There’s unchecked growth, the trees are bestial and wild, the greenery spreads itself lavishly across the earth. Flowers are fragile with untaught beauty, their petals blushing. It is an unadulterated world of desolate, ungovernable peaks. The flora is bewitchingly disordered, the trees form a spontaneous canopy and a sound breaks free from the depths of the forest as an animal moves in the shadows.
My uncle’s house is small and unobtrusive. It’s made of wood in the traditional style and the curve of the tiled roof mimics the slopes of the mountains. The windows are made of rice paper and are glowing a soft yellow. On the terrace of the hanok are large ceramic jars of fermenting soybean paste. The lid of one is askew, and the salty smell of doenjang is pungent as I approach the front door.
I knock apprehensively and wait.
Before my uncle went missing in 1992, there’d been a great deal of interest in his activities. He’d developed a passion for wild ginseng.
His passion grew slowly at first. He used to buy the domesticated ginseng, plucked at the age of maturity and ground into little medicinal pellets he would swallow with a glass of water at breakfast.
He sent crates of powdered ginseng around the family and everyone took part in the ginseng diet. The root was good because its ginsenosides would improve your immune system and circulation. The scientific name for it—panax ginseng—derives from the Greek for “cure-all.”
I like the Korean and Chinese words for it best, which is where the word ginseng originates: insam and renshen, meaning “man-root.” The ginseng does look curiously like a man.
People have taken it very seriously in the past. The Viet Cong used it on their wounds during the Vietnam War, and during the Qing Dynasty and Court of Joseon the Manchu-Chinese struggled with the Koreans for possession of the lands where it thrived.
With the onset of the evening of his life, my uncle’s appetite for the plant grew. Perhaps he’d heard of the legend of Li Qingyun, a herbalist born in Sichuan who was reported to have lived to the age of 256 from a diet rich in ginseng. He finally popped his clogs in 1933 with an obituary in The New York Times and over 200 descendants from his astonishing vigour.
I knock again on the door and continue to wait.
My uncle set his name down on the waiting list for wild ginseng, but eventually, he took to hunting it himself. My mother says he began to grow increasingly impassioned when he talked of it. A gleam would come into his eye and there would be a strange brightness about his face as though the plant had bestowed a halo on him.
He began to say that he could trace our line back to 220 BC, to the wise men who led the first emperor of a unified China, Qin Shi Huang, on quests to find the elusive elixir in the mountains.
It was a queer business, the hunting of the plant. The mountain creatures were different to those we farmed.
My uncle would take a troop of hunters with him, simmani who’d passed down their trade from generation to generation, and they would prowl the mountain slopes for their prey.
A sighting was rare. But every so often they’d spy one through the undergrowth, sitting in a meditative pose on a rock by a brook, one leg crossed calmly over the other. It would be sitting in the shade of a tree—for ginseng always preferred the shade—contemplating the song of the stream.
The ginseng would be a light yellowish colour, its torso thick and meaty, its two long arms resting on its two smooth legs, which branched out into many wispy fibres.
My uncle and his troop would watch it as it sat with its back to them, reclining on the rock like a peaceful sage. My uncle once said that he often wondered what they were thinking.
Then the first hunter who had seen it would shout “simbatta!“—I’ve seen ginseng!—and they would burst forwards from the undergrowth and charge at it with nets.
The small squished stump of the ginseng’s head would swivel around in fright, and it would leap up from the rock and dart into the trees. It would always move quickly, nimbly, its wispy legs bounding through the forest with grace.
They had to be quick, the hunters. They couldn’t let it drop out of their sight or in a few moments the ginseng would burrow its way into the soil and be gone forever.
Sometimes this happened, and other times a simmani would spot where it was tunneling, cast aside his net and fall upon it, pulling it back up as though by the hair, its roots flailing.
It would make a formidable potion; a strange sweetness and bitterness combined, a brown liquid with a warmth in the flavour. My uncle would drink the flesh of the ginseng and feel the vitality of his youth returning to him.
Over the years, the hunt for wild ginseng grew more difficult. Nature’s territory was receding as the commercial value of the root was rising. They were becoming endangered, but the laws of the time were insufficient to protect their numbers.
For almost a year, my uncle had to satisfy himself with farmed ginseng. When he disappeared and his house became the property of the family, we discovered that he’d left behind rooms of farmed ginseng presented in pretty boxes.
I have seen them lain out in a row like slain adolescents, small heads and long slender bodies, roots splayed out like the tails of dishevelled mermaids.
The mountain ginseng, sansam, is superior to the farmed variety because an older root will provide a more potent tonic. While the hand-sown seeds will be harvested after six or eight years, the wild ones can grow for hundreds.
Days before his disappearance, there was a flurry of interest in my uncle’s hobby because of his latest and greatest catch.
After months of frustration, he spied the rarest of the mountain breed, so rare it was thought to be only a legend. A veritable mountain man, a root as large as my uncle, recumbent in the shade of a pine tree with one leg crossed serenely over the other.
It was well nourished, its torso fleshy and corpulent, its limbs thick and strong. Its head was the size of a man’s head, silent and still as it engaged in a moment of reflection.
It was a heavily wrinkled creature. The “rings” on its skin and the size of it suggested it was at least a few hundred years old. It was an ancient relic, a specimen of immortality.
A colossal joy bubbled in my uncle. As he watched it from behind, he saw the man-root’s head turn towards their hiding place as though it suspected their presence.
He could not contain himself. “Simbatta!” he cried and lunged towards it. His squad rushed forwards with their nets.
The chase began! It darted through the trees, its long arms swinging as it ran. Dappled sunlight fell on its yellowish hide.
It plunged into the ground and began to burrow its way into the protective earth. Quickly the hunters dug after, it but it fled from their prying hands, burrowing frantically, deeper and deeper.
But then a hand gripped a wriggling root and would not let go. From its mother’s clasp, it was pulled writhing and shrieking. It was like the crying of an old man. It took four men to hold it down, one for each struggling limb, and the man-root resisted with all its strength.
My uncle produced a knife and sliced through its flesh. The creature thrashed and cried as my uncle took what was now his. He carved the man-root into pieces while his men grew unsettled and afraid. The trees shook and the wind howled around them.
When he brought the chopped up root to the family, no one would touch it. “It will be like eating a person,” his mother said. “Eating it will invite disaster.”
But my uncle was unfazed. A manic gleam was in his eye, a wide and zealous smile on his face. “If a root a hundred years old can bring you youth, how much more potent will a root of a few hundred be!”
He had already ingested part of its head, and indeed my uncle appeared more vital than before. My family say the suppleness of his street fighting years had returned to him and a healthy flush was on his cheek.
A week later, there was a funeral in Busan, and on that day, his hair was thick and black as though the grey strands had melted away and his eyes were more lustrous, more manic. After that, no one saw him again.
I am about to knock again on the door when I hear a sound and pause.
There is hushed movement in the house. Footsteps are approaching the door. Without realising it, I am holding my breath. My uncle is here. The door opens.
I take a deep customary bow.
There is something strange about his hands. They are long spindly fingers, and there is a yellowish tinge to his skin.
I see his face now as I straighten. He is smiling at me, but there is an expression in his eyes, a sharp shine, as though his eyes do not belong to a man but the mountain.
His hair is white, but it is a yellowish white as though washed through with earth.
I falter. I do not want to follow him inside.
But the door is opening wide. He is beckoning me in.
Hesitantly I cross the threshold.
Even the smell of the house is strange.
He leads me into a room with silk cushions on the floor, and we sit down cross-legged. The floor is heated and provides a pleasing warmth.
Despite the long years that have passed, my uncle is detached in his manner. He asks me for news of the family and I tell him though he is distracted. Now and then his eyes shine again. It is as though there is something inside him which dances among his organs and laughs savagely. He is trying to hold it down, but it battles against his control and compels his attention.
Sometimes he listens keenly and nods his head and asks questions. Other times he is swallowing, closing his eyes, trying to keep this thing in him still.
There is a moment when he seems to be in a peaceful repose, his eyes shut as though listening for something beyond me. His legs are stretched out, one crossed over the other, and his long arms are resting on them.
Then he stirs. His head turns away from me so that I see only his profile, his large face and small nose, the wispy hairs hanging from his skin like threads come loose.
One sharp eye opens and fixes on me, and I feel that I do not recognise him to be a person at all.
Then he smiles. He is back to his usual self.
I tell him I haven’t stayed in a hanok for years, and he says that he will show me something special.
His slippered feet slide soundlessly along the wooden floor, and I follow him with a feeling of apprehension. I am wondering whether I should get out of there.
He motions for silence as we approach a door. “Too much noise will startle her,” he says.
He draws back the sliding door and turns on the light. A golden glow fills the room. The walls are bare and the place is completely empty except for a creature which sits at the other end of the room.
Her back faces us as she reclines like a nude before an artist, and she has the height and proportions of a full-grown woman. There is a sensual curve to her back and her hips. There is a suppleness to her composition, a sinewy poise.
We cast our eyes over her tan flesh; her long, smooth, crossed legs; her long arms. She is a voluptuous lady, well fed, her torso thick and meaty and her buttocks juicy and round. She has a delicious aromatic warmth to her, and she is reclining coyly.
I step back as though I have intruded on a girl’s changing room.
My uncle laughs and the ginseng turns towards us. The face is smooth and blank, but she seems to sniff me out. She senses me and now the face has turned directly towards me. There is something carnal in the directness of her stance, and there is a strange charge in the air which shocks me.
The ginseng turns away. There is a gracefulness in the gesture, a kind of silent prettiness. Perhaps she turns away out of shyness, perhaps she fears we will see what is in her heart.
Perhaps she turns away out of disgust.
My uncle says, “I am considering carving a pretty face on her. An acceptable pleasing face. With my wood-carving knife, I will be as good as the best surgeons of Seoul. I will give her double-eyelids, a high nose, a narrow chin. She will be as pretty as the girls in Gangnam. No one will tell her apart.”
Then he ushers me out of the room, and we drink rice wine until the night grows late. He is silent for the most part. He seems still to be fighting against something within him. I have come to notice that whenever he descends into these silences, the yellowish tinge in his skin grows more vibrant. I fill his cup with wine and see that his fingers look longer and more spindly than before. There is an aromatic herbal smell about him. Then he wakes out of his reverie and his hands are a man’s hands and his skin is his skin alone.
I am feeling heavy as though a fever is starting up in me. I am too tired; I have pushed myself too far these days.
My family does not know it, but I have taken up the old ways of my uncle. These past months, I have been trawling the streets for a fight and have made a minor name for myself. I have become initiated into a group and beneath my clothes my wounds are fresh.
My uncle may have discarded the sport years ago, but there is a primeval power in it, a life of its own.
Through it I can annihilate every inauthenticity within me and return to my natural origins, my honest animal senses.
And the lady in the room. There is nothing constructed about her. She is uncontrived. She is real, more real than the men and women of the city. Those clipped and gardened lives. She is a creature of the earth.
The light swims. My uncle’s face dims. A hand grips my arm and my uncle shows me to a room.
A mattress is on the floor, just how I like it. The pillow is one of the old types made of wood. I lie down and the fever takes me. My body breaks into shivers, and my clothes are wet with sweat. I am restless throughout the night, turning from nightmare to nightmare, my body getting hotter and hotter.
And then—is it a dream?—I am woken by a movement in the night. The door slides open. A visitor approaches noiselessly, only the scent of her flesh reveals her. An earthy smell.
I feel a pressure as she sits on me.
The rings on her skin are rough and I feel her tendrils; her hard, tuberous muscles. I feel the curve of her rear, her smooth meaty cheeks and the moist warmth of her thighs. She undresses me and caresses me and then begins to rock.
She gives herself up to every pleasure of the moment, and I am drowned in the severity of her love.
A brief frenzy. Frantic kisses. An empty room again.
In the morning, my fever has progressed. I cannot raise my head.
My uncle comes and goes. He feeds me chicken soup, warming teas. Feels my forehead and shakes his head.
How long I spend there I do not know; my senses dull with the days. I can see nothing, hear nothing, taste nothing. My uncle wakes me from painful slumbers and puts a spoon to my lips. The soups slip down.
And then one silent day, I rise. There is an oppressive stillness in the house. I trail from room to room but there is no one, only a dense, conspiring emptiness. I slide open the door to the lady’s room but she is not there.
Through the empty house I move, through a heavy silence. The silence is so heavy it will crush me; I will break it with a shout. But there is a smell; a bittersweet, familiar smell. I follow it to its source where there is a table, a spoon, a bowl of soup steaming.
I stare down at the soup, aghast.
My eyes roam to the details in the room. The kitchen stove, the still-hot pot, the peeler with rinds in its blades. There is a chopping board, a sharp knife gleaming.
When I see the knife, I throw up. I stick my fingers down my throat and bring up as much of her as I can.
I stumble my way out of the house and into the calm of the forest. I wander through the trees in a daze. There is a discomfort in my belly and it is growing. Something is wrong. It is as though there is something moving around inside of me.
I can barely hold myself up as I lean against a tree.
When I relieve myself, there is an excruciating pain.
Small ginseng rootlets are flailing in the fresh puddle.
I can make out a tiny ear, a nose, the timid beginnings of an eye.
I will take them up in my hands, my wild children, and return them to the woods. I will set them free and watch them as they burrow down, down into the deep womb of the world and tell them to never come back.
Editor’s Note on The Man Root.
The artwork for The Man Root is by Annie Ridd.