for E. and S.
We descended out of the mist and saw the hut below us, an orange shack and four multi-coloured tin bungalows perched on the grass. In the hut, we were met by two boys, one jangling metal and the other with a nervous laugh. Their stoned gaze made me fear for our safety overnight in a place so remote our cry would be another high-pitched call the wind swept far and wide.
After a four-hour, 5000-foot descent through snake-infested, brushed-back grass, we entered the church of the monastery, our final destination. The wood carvings glowed golden in the candle-lit dark. A sign showed numerous articles not allowed in the sanctuary of the church, including our backpacks, which, after buying candles, we were asked to deposit in front of the church. I waited outside.
In the hut, we fell into conversation, languages combining and colliding to reveal a painful past: an ugly neighbourhood, broken relationship, impossible return. Tea was served, which made my nerve-ends jingle. I wondered if it was drugged. Later, when the lion espied through binoculars a gaggle of Middle Eastern youths descending the valley, I felt we had been saved, its scent diverted to meatier, easier prey.
As I waited outside the monastery church, my camera open, a monk trundling crates of bottled mineral water drew a line one foot from where I was standing. I could take photographs on the other side of the columns, he informed me, but not where I was. I wondered how many crates he had already carried, bottles containing water that splashed off the mountain behind.
In the hut, we were no longer alone. The boys set about preparing our supper: lentil soup, cheese omelette, fresh salad and a grilled pepper that had been skinned and sprinkled with cayenne and garlic. We asked them how at 7000 feet, with no discernible road, they had such products. They brought them up from the nearest village. And how did they cook such delicious food? Using Calor gas. We didn’t ask about the clean sheets, the bathroom they were building. As night folded in, the water turbine kicked into action, providing a gentle glow through which we saw the others as in The Potato Eaters, everything turned to shades of brown.
The monastery reception was closed and no one answered when I dialled the mobile phone number listed on the wall. A young monk finally turned up, produced three sets of stapled paper: name, sex, address, purpose of visit, serial number. I thought I had completed mine when he pointed to a second slip of paper on which I affirmed I had come to bow my head at the altar and would like, in return for overnight accommodation, to contribute (minimum 10) leva. I knew the going rate for a foreigner was 30, a resident 12, and, having lived for over five years in the capital and agreed this on a previous visit, was about to write 12 when he asked if my passport was Bulgarian. No. Did I have a residence permit? It was in Sofia. Then I would have to pay as a foreigner. I refused and stormed out.
In the hut, now that everyone had eaten, the boys served themselves, picking at their food but mostly smoking and enjoying the conversation. They drank rakia from a mineral water bottle, which they handed around. When we thanked them for the food and their hospitality, one laughed, the other said it was what they were here for. Later we too gazed at the Milky Way, our upturned lamps answering the stars’ twinkle. I slept worst of all that night. Tomorrow we would sleep in a soft bed next to the monastery, a drunken waiter whirling like a dervish and demanding baksheesh. When we set out from the hut the following morning, one boy had disappeared, the other rested in the sunlight, proud as a mountain cairn.
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