Old Japanese man alone on the mountain

I’m thinking of a very old man tonight. He lives alone in the high mountains of central Japan. In a village so far removed it took me five years to find it, though I visited the area at least twice a month. The man is the sole occupant of an enormous old farm estate near the end of a treacherous mountain road. He lives in a little valley bowl with a fast-moving mountain stream. The narrow road runs through the bowl, splitting his estate down the middle. Though the home could easily house a dozen, the man lives in the tool shed by the road. Conserving heat, and perhaps hiding from ghosts, real or perceived.

The first time I met him I greeted him in Japanese and he only stared at me, like I was some alien from another planet trespassing his reality, which I was. After I found the valley I came back often, and usually discovered him out-of-doors. Often simply standing. He always stared. And never returned my greeting. He’d also watch me go. Standing stooped in the middle of the little road. And once I think he followed me for a bit. As I saw his shape in the far distance beside a patch of blooming wild chrysanthemums. He had his hands clasped behind his back. The river roaring with summer. The high mountain cicadas whirring in the approaching night.

The last time I came I thought he was gone. Like so many others I’d seen disappear in a decade of mountain exploring. One month there’s a house, softly breathing with the life of an old man or woman. The next month it’s a ruin, with no pulse, and no promise of human continuity. Belonging again to the forest and mountain. I thought he was gone. But he was there, as I could detect the faintest light within the shed.

I never said goodbye to the man. Only hello. So many times hello. It’s winter now in Japan. And I wonder if he’s still there. Up there in the snow. Alone. Perhaps outside. Hearing the river roar with winter. And the utter silence of human solitude.

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