"Ginkgo Tree"

  • onAugust 3, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byKim Un-su
Ginkgo Tree

But after three years, the Ginkgo tree suddenly started to grow with frightening speed, remarkable considering its slow progress in the first three years. The pea-sized tree grew to the size of a chestnut in a mere month, and an orange in two months. On the third month, it was the size of a watermelon.

“It’s awesome! It grew so much this month, too. I think the manure really helped. A little smelly, though. Ha ha. Anyway, I’m glad the tree is growing well, but I’d hate to draw attention to myself because of this. What if I end up on TV? What if people crowd me and demand to see my tree? I can’t stand a racket. It can’t be good for the tree, either.”

But that was the least of our worries. We were worried about his health. It goes without saying that the only source of nutrients for the tree was the man’s body, and there was no telling what that meant for him. The roots already run all the way down to his wrist, and he had next to no movement in his left hand. But he was completely oblivious to our worries and driveled on about his plans for the tree.

“Maybe I should just let it all out in the open and raise it proudly. It’ll be a little trying, but that’s the only way I can have some semblance of a social life and still keep my tree. By the way, they have Ginkgo tree experts at the Korea Forest Service, no? I have so many questions. How much sunlight does the tree need? I hear Ginkgoes have male and female trees. How does the pollination work? Does the wind take care of everything, or do they need the help of bees and butterflies? ‘Cause I hate bees. Butterflies are okay, though.”

As time went on, the man shriveled. He kept losing weight until he went from chubby to scrawny. His face was jaundiced, and his entire left arm was paralyzed. His digestive system started to fail him—he couldn’t hold anything down. We implored him to consider the only option he had: to have the tree surgically removed by taking out a part of his finger and digging the roots out of his arm. The way things were going, he was sure to die soon. But he politely declined and put his affairs in order like someone on his way out.

“Has he lost his mind?” cried his agitated wife. “It’s not like he’s got a new woman! He’s throwing everything away—his life, his family!—and for what? A Ginkgo tree! Tell him to repot the tree in a pot if he loves it so much.” From her point of view, this whole affair was unconscionable. I agreed. But his closures were irrevocable, quick, and simple. He transferred ownership of the stationery store and the house to his wife, and left. He called us at the bus terminal. “I’m leaving now,” he said. “Thank you for everything.” It was a simple message. He didn’t mention where he was going.

I’ve heard that some plants only grow on carcasses. But I’ve never heard of trees that grow on organisms that are still alive. What happened there? Why did that Ginkgo tree choose human flesh and veins over the sacred and fertile soil endowed with the blessings of Mother Nature? What an enigma.

He sometimes wrote us. He was living in a hut on Songni Mountain at one point, and in Taebaek ountain at another. We couldn’t tell how he was able to feed himself and stay hidden from the rest of the world. His last letter came from Jiri Mountain.



The tree is well. I am also well. I think the time has come for the tree to lay roots in the ground. I’ll have to go deeper into the woods. Once the Ginkgo tree goes into the ground, I won’t be able to write anymore. But things will be just fine as they’ve always been. Thank you for planting a life in my body. Don’t worry about a thing. I am happier than I have ever been in any life I have ever lived.

I don’t have a Ginkgo tree growing on me, so I don’t know how a monstrous tree that feeds on human blood like a vampire can make anybody happy. But he said he was happy. If he hasn’t died yet, he’ll be living somewhere deep in the Jiri Mountain woods with the Ginkgo. If he lives on, it will be thanks to the tree. He will hang onto the tree, now bigger than he, like a leaf or a fruit, and live on the nutrients the tree draws up from deep within the earth.

The Ginkgo tree has been around for 350 million years. They lived through the dinosaur age and survived the ice age. Their average life expectancy is anywhere from a hundred to a thousand years. The Ginkgo tree will raise him now.

I sometimes wonder if he has turned into a tree, his body stretched out to become roots, branches, and leaves. I wonder if he’s fluttering in the wind high up on a branch, quietly looking down at our messy, inconsequential lives below. 



pp. 40–43
Translated by Jamie Chang

Author's Profile

Kim Un-su has written three novels and one short story collection. He won the Munhakdongne Novel Award in 2006. His books have been translated into French, Japanese, and Chinese. He was invited to the Saint-Louis Literary Festival and the French literary festival, “Meeting.”