Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Erik Priedkalns

There is a Japanese woman carved into the side of a mountain, on the face of a granite wall. The wall is deep in a Niigata Forest, close to the Sea of Japan. She sits high in the middle of the dark, grey, stony face. Above her, the rock face ends forty meters up at the top. Below the Lady, the cliffy granite keeps going down and vanishes under the cover of thick, richly green trees.

Her face is calm, but serious and watchful. Her legs are loosely curled under smooth rock thighs. Her long hair falls around her breasts, and she leans on one elbow. At first you think she was someone’s ancient lover, but her eyes are slightly narrowed, vigilant and fierce.

Follow the stare of her eyes and you can see the world she is watching. Her gaze falls upon the deep, sprawling valley, across to the next range rise, and over the densely packed forest.

Nobody knows how she got there. No ledges, ladders, or stairs. Even the old-timers, who were born here and never left, cannot say how she came to be.

“Who put her there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did she come from?”

“I haven’t a clue.”

“Who is she?”

“I haven’t any idea.”

“How long has it been up there?”



“She is she.”

“She. How long has she been up there?”

“My entire life.”

“How old are you?”


“You’re kidding me? You look seventy-six.”

Domo arigato.”

The need for answers became a matter of national importance because the pesky Rock Face Lady caught the public’s attention when a troublemaker posted her picture on his Instagram page. Countless years of aimless conjecture met with social media’s hunger for “truth”, and the world needed an answer.

Finally, a famous news channel decided to put the Lady’s history to rest, and sent its top reporter, K.H. to get the real story. K.H. was a thirty-six-year-old industrious worker who gave up everything to get to the position she was in. If she were the type to talk about such things, she could tell you that getting here wasn’t a Sunday stroll around Osaka Castle. Touchy-feely men, and her own self-doubt tried to stop her from success, but she made it. Even now, they would try to remind her of who she was by occasionally giving her assignments such as going to some country place to talk about a woman on a mountain wall. They told her that having a woman reporter talk about a rock woman was more suitable than a male reporter. She decided to try her best.

So, she and her cameraman packed up their bags and made the trip to the mountains in Niigata. Well, not exactly Niigata, in fact it was quite a distance from Niigata, in a town she never heard of. Actually, the town was not even a town. It was more of a settlement in the mountain forest near a town. Okay, not even a settlement, just some old farmer’s mountain farm.

She met with the farmer and was ready to conduct a “no holding back, tell us the truth, don’t lie old man” interview.

The “old man” was not old by Japanese standards, maybe seventy-seven. He lived way up in the mountains with his wife on his family’s land. His face was wide, and his features were thick. The old house, with its sturdy brown, wavy Japanese tiles, and block walls, stood for two hundred years. The yard was strewn with thin bamboo sticks, old buckets, a few shovels, a quad runner, a mini pick-up truck, and a couple of shacks. Near the farmer’s home, up the mountain that he owned, were four houses which he also owned. They were hidden in the nearly impenetrable Japanese forest of tall, straight standing trees. Five houses, all abandoned except for his.

Outside the farmhouse, K.H. looked at the wall of forest and trees surrounding the farmer’s plot.

“Would you like to come in?” asked the farmer. “I think we are ready.”

“Certainly,” she said.

They went into the farmhouse and sat at a plain, brown wood table.

“My mother and father died long ago. Then my brother died, my kids left, now it is just us.” The farmer nodded his flat-topped, gray head in the direction of his wife. She wore a short sleeved, white undershirt tee-shirt, and black overalls. The overalls were faded and patched. They were not the ones you saw in the fashionable Tokyo or Osaka hangouts.

His wife’s hair was brown and wavy. The long strands bounced off her shoulders, and she smiled and nodded her head. Her teeth were stained a bit, and there were a couple missing, but it was a pleasant change for K.H. who spent half her work week trying to whiten her already glittering, white smile. The couple reminded her of her parents and grandparents in the small Japan Sea town where she grew up. It had been a while since she had gone to her old town, and almost all the young people had left. Sometimes she missed the town. Now she lived in Osaka, and until you lived in Osaka, you had no idea how busy and noisy Osaka can be.

“Would you like something to eat?” asked the farmer.

“No thank you,” she said, “why don’t we start?”

“Okay, what would you like to know?”

“Wait,” she said. She turned to the cameraman. “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” said the face behind the camera. He had strong puffy hands and wore a black tee-shirt and blue jeans.

“Would he like something to eat?” asked the farmer.

“No,” answered K.H. “We won’t be live; we will record this for later.”

“That’s good.”

“Okay, let’s start. We are here to talk about the mysterious Lady carved into the mountain side cliff.”

“She is very pretty, don’t you think?”

“I’ve only seen pictures,” said K.H.

“You should see her, maybe we can go after.”

“Well, I have to get back to Osaka as soon as this is over.”

“Oh? That is a bit strange,” said the farmer.

“How so?”

“Well, wouldn’t you want to know what I’m talking about?”

“I guess I would, but it is fairly far.”

“She,” said the farmer.

“She?” asked K.H.

“She. The Lady in the rock,” replied the farmer. “She.” His wife nodded.

“Sorry, she,” said K.H.

“Excuse me,” said the cameraman.

“Oh. I am sorry,” said the farmer.

“We can erase that part,” said K.H.

The farmer was careful with his words, just like K.H.’s father. Her father knew nothing about reporting, and not much about anything outside of his small town, but his carefulness of speech gave K.H. a gift for clarity and specificity that her audience and supervisors appreciated.

“So, how long have you known about the Lady?”

“My whole life,” said the farmer. “We used to take walks to her when I was young. We’d bring some food and have a picnic.”

“We took our two sons and two daughters almost every weekend,” said the farmer’s wife.

“Why?” asked K.H. She blushed a bit because the question seemed a little rude. “Sorry, I only meant, what is the attraction?”

“Well, there isn’t much to do here after the work is done, and the children enjoyed it.”

“Does she have a name?”

“I don’t know,” said the farmer, “I never asked her.” He chuckled a little. His wife giggled too. K.H. fought with all her strength, but her lips curved up into a little smile.

“Our children called her Chiyo-san,” said the farmer’s wife.

“Chiyo-san?” asked K.H.

“They said she used to be a famous warrior.”

“Oh, I’ve never heard of her,” said K.H.

“The children told us only a warrior could stay up there so long. Winters get very cold.”

“You went in the winter?”

“Oh, sure. The children loved her in the winter. They said her face looked prettiest when the sun bounced off the snow and brightened her up,” said the farmer.

“We would wrap them in all their warmest clothes, bring some tea and onigiri,” said his wife.

“I’d throw snowballs at her,” said the farmer, laughing. “The children would get upset and say, ‘don’t throw snow at Chiyo-san, she will think we do not like her.’“

K.H. saw the farmer’s wife smile a wispy smile, and wipe the corner of her eye with a finger.

“That was very long ago,” said the farmer.

“How long?” asked K.H.

“More than forty years,” said his wife.

“Did you want them to stay,” asked K.H.

“Being a farmer is very hard,” said the farmer. “All the children from around have left.”

“Yes, it is the same with my town,” said K.H.

“Oh? Are your parents farmers?”

“No,” said K.H. “store owners. But we were very country, and now that the farm children are leaving, I guess everyone is.”

The farmer smiled. “Well, the Lady is still here.”

“Oh. Yes,” said K.H., “let’s talk about the Lady.”

“I thought we were,” said the farmer.

K.H. sat up straight in her seat. ‘Good posture is the start of everything,’ her teachers used to say.

“Where did she come from?”

“She was always there,” said the farmer. He looked confused as to why she even asked that.

“But the question everyone wants to know is, who put her there?” said K.H.

“Nobody knows for sure,” said the farmer.

“Did you ever try to find out?”

“By the time I was born, I suppose people had stopped wondering about it,” said the farmer.

K.H. grew bothered. She was about to stop the filming because her frustration was rising. “These people,” she said to herself. “Always ready to take their long conversations nowhere.” Her father was the same.

“But you were told that was why we were coming here.”

“I was told you wanted to talk about the Lady,” said the farmer.

“I do. I want to talk about where she came from.”

“Well, there were some people who used to talk about where the Lady came from,” said the farmer.

“Yes?” K.H. moved forward in her chair.

The farmer leaned back in his chair and looked at the floor as though he were trying to remember. He looked up from the floor, took a deep breath and told her the story he had heard everyone tell. How the mysterious woman appeared from nowhere, a scorned lover, jealous husband and her likeness ends up on a mountain wall, the end.

When the farmer finished, K.H. studied him, and he looked embarrassed by the story.

She made sure the camera was off and turned to the farmer.

“Do you believe that story?” she asked.

“No,” said the farmer’s wife.

The farmer got up from the table and walked outside. K.H. followed him. The silver sun was shining off the high, wispy, white fall clouds. K.H. breathed, and the familiar, tangy smell of the foliage rushed into her nose. To K.H., fall was the best season, but also incredibly sorrowful. No matter the time of day, in the fall it always felt like dusk to her.

“Kimura-san, I never asked your given name, if that is okay?” said the farmer.

K.H. smiled. “These people and their formality,” she said to herself.


“That is a very good name,” said the farmer.

“Thank you.”

“Maybe you would like to see the woman?”

“Well, my cameraman and I need to get back, and I don’t have the right shoes.”

“Your running shoes are in the van, and we weren’t planning on going home tonight,” said the cameraman.

“I don’t have the proper clothing.”

“You have your workout clothes in the van too.”

“Well,” said Hiromi, “my cameraman is going back to the hotel soon.”

“We can take you back,” said the farmer.

“It would be too much for you,” Hiromi said.

“I can wait, and work in the van,” said the cameraman.

“You have a very diligent cameraman,” said the farmer.

“Yes,” said Hiromi.

The cameraman left to get the bag.

Hiromi watched the farmer’s face and studied its friendly lines.

“You did not like the story I told, did you?” asked the farmer.

Hiromi smiled. “Nor did you.”

“Here’s your bag,” said the cameraman.

“Where did you come from?” Hiromi asked. But he was gone again.

“Will the interview be acceptable?” asked the farmer.

“As long as my supervisors and viewers like it, that is all that matters.”

“Yes, that is what is really important, to please your supervisors and customers,” said the farmer.

“Let’s walk to the Lady,” said the farmer’s wife, “you can change in the guestroom. I will get some food.”

Hiromi was about to protest again, but the farmer’s wife left.

The farmer led her to a small house with a cement floor, and a metal cot. On the cot was a thin mattress on springs.

“She calls it a guestroom, but nobody has slept in here for thirty years,” said the farmer.

He left the room, and Hiromi quickly changed.

She then walked out into the yard and looked around the clearing. For the first time, she noticed that the perfectly straight trunks of the pine trees were all exposed to a certain height, and then exploded out in triangular green.

She wondered at the perfect lines and colors of the trees, bushes, and plants. She wished she knew the names of the plants and trees. The straight lines of the tree trunks stood as an unspoiled fence, and beyond them was a world of streams, plants, moss-covered roots, and boulders. She wondered if the farmer’s children were allowed to play on the other side.

The farmer’s wife came out with a red and black striped backpack.

“That was quick,” said Hiromi.

“She always has food ready in case we go blind,” said the farmer.

“Here, let me take that backpack,” said Hiromi.

“No, it is a difficult walk. You need to save energy,” said the farmer’s wife. She pointed to a trail that disappeared into the line of forest trees.

“Or maybe we can take the dirt road,” said the farmer. “It is about four kilometers further, but much easier.”

“I will be fine,” said Hiromi.

They started out. The trail went straight up at first, and Hiromi tripped over a few embedded rocks at the beginning. As she suspected, the old farmer and his wife were very strong walkers. When you walk to ninety percent of the places you go, you develop a steely strength in your legs. With her parents it was the same. They had a car, but never really drove anywhere. Her father drove the car, at most, once a week.

“Why should I waste gas if I can walk?” he used to say.

Hiromi had given up trying to point out the silliness of owning a car if you never drove it. Besides, he liked telling people he had a car. She smiled at the memory.

They walked along without seeing a single person. She was always surprised at how empty the Japanese mountains were. She had gone to the Italian Alps with friends, and even hiked Fujisan once. Those places were always packed. But when you went to a normal mountain trail, they were empty, just like the small country towns that were disappearing.

Without warning, her foot caught in the space between a tree root and the fresh soil. She went stumbling forward and caught herself by putting out her hands. Her hands plunged into a shallow pool of water on the trail. Hiromi felt the cool mud slide between her fingers and could feel the grainy press of the tiny stones into the heels of her hands. It felt so good. She curled her fingers into fists and grabbed at the mud. A rush of relief and pleasure shot through her as the sticky coolness oozed from between her fingers and came out from both sides of her balled up hands. Her knees were planted in a dryer area of the soil, and a zinging sensation gave a jolt to her thoughts. She loved the mountains, and the country, and the trails, the air, the stillness.

“Silly, nostalgic childhood memories,” she thought. “Nothing real.”

But a whiff of sorrow puffed through her. She thought of her parents, and these people, and how every single moment they experienced in their lives would never happen again. The holiday celebrations, the walks to school, the mornings, the gatherings with friends. Everything was gone.

She stayed down on the trail and closed her eyes. The old farmer and his wife thought she needed to catch her breath. But Hiromi was trying to bring back the drinking party where her mother kept telling her to run back to the kitchen for more beer, nihonshu, whisky, shochu, and plum wine.

Her heart twisted when she recalled the warmth of the house that time. It was winter, and they were celebrating Christmas, even though they were Buddhists. She remembered the cheery dining room, the cigarette smoke, and the loud, drunk voices.

She heard the old farmer and his wife asking if she was okay. They laughed when she looked up, and they saw a muddy blot on her chin. They laughed even harder when the old farmer tried to help her up, and she slipped again and got mud all over the old farmer’s denim, button-up shirt.

The sweat plopped into Hiromi’s eyes, and stung out some tears. Not gushing tears, just the small type that squeeze out from old memories.

They started walking, and the farmer and his wife pointed to the spots and places.

“This is the place where our oldest boy would start his baseball training runs to and from the Lady. He would come back with a bright, red face.”

“This is the spot where all the kids used to stop and announce to Chiyo-san that we were coming. They said we needed to have manners.”

It was a small, circular clearing under a growth of a dozen trees. The sun bounced off the yellowish-green leaves and brightened the mossy sod in the clearing.

They stopped at the place where their youngest daughter was stung by a bee, and their oldest daughter had started crying.

“Our middle son was a strange child sometimes,” said the farmer. “This is the place where he would always threaten to jump because he said he was a moth and could fly.”

They came to a clearing on the side of the mountain. All around them stood bamboo trees. Hiromi could see why the son thought he could fly. The view opened to a spotless, blue sky. The sun shined on the green of the valleys, hills and mountains that unwound below them. Hiromi never realized how many different greens there were in the world.

“Did he ever fly?” asked Hiromi.

“No, but he climbed that boulder there and jumped off while flapping his arms,” said the farmer’s wife.

Hiromi studied the boulder.

“So, what do you really believe about the Lady?” Hiromi asked the farmer and his wife.

“I don’t know,” said the farmer.

“Maybe our children were right,” said the farmer’s wife.

“How so?” asked Hiromi.

“They told us the story of Chiyo-san, and how she was Onna-bugeisha,” replied the farmer’s wife.

Hiromi nodded. She remembered when she was very young, and she and her friends acted out the stories of the female samurai.

The farmer’s wife brushed her hair out of her eyes. “They told a story about the Lady that they heard from classmates or a teacher, or someone. They said Chiyo-san was a warrior, but the only time she would fight was to protect her family and home. She was wealthy but loved the little village that used to be here. She would never leave with her husband to go on attacks. She had no interest in conquering and taking.”

The farmer’s wife exhaled and took a deep breath. “Who knows how much is true, or even if any is true. You know children, they like to make up stories about stories that were already made up.

“They say one day, when her husband and the other men were away, the enemy attacked the village. Chiyo-san was so strong that she fought until she could hardly move, but her spirit was so strong that the enemy grew exhausted fighting and just left.

“But Chiyo-san was fierce and protective. She did not believe the enemy would leave for good, so she climbed the side of the rocky face of a mountain where there was a small opening. From that opening, she could see the whole valley and all the routes leading to the village.

“Her strength wasn’t the strength of fire. Her strength was solid, and never-ending, like stone. The children told us that after months of watching, her will was the only strength she had left. But she kept feeding the will with its own power. And her strength grew so much that she filled that stony space, watching, protecting, never leaving.”

The farmer’s wife did not end the story but simply said, “she may have been wealthier than the farmers, but she knew she was one of us. That is what we do. But now many of the children leave this place, they say there is no future here.”

She stopped talking, and the three of them stood in the clearing in silence, looking out over the valleys, hills, and mountains.

And a breeze shivered through the clearing.

And Hiromi remembered the peace of the wind moving through bamboo leaves.

And she stared as far as her eyes could take her.

And she knew the story was true.

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