In Cold Mountain, what does the Cherokee woman's story about the Shining Rocks mean to Inman?
It is important to note that Inman shares this story with Ada, retelling it as he himself heard it, in what they think will be their last meeting before Inman goes off to war. The Shining Rocks operates as a kind of archetypal fable, representing the Promised Land of bounty, peace and plenty. However, the loss of this land proves to represent a greater loss of happiness, comfort and security. Note what Inman says about the woman's reaction as she re-tells the story:
In a minute he said, That old woman looked older than God and she cried tears out of her white eyeball when she told the story.
His own commentary on the meaning, when Ada asks him if he believes it, is as follows:
I take it that she could have been living in a better world, but she ended up fugitive, hiding in the balsams.
Thus the story to Inman represents the hope of a better world, an alternative to being "fugitive," which he spends most of the novel doing. But equally the flip-side of this story of hope is that it is also a story of loss, which could be said to foreshadow Inman's own death and his temporary reunion with Ada.