When I first set eyes on Gollum, she scared me. Diminutive and frail, she seemed to be very old; however, she smiled up at us kindly enough, and her eyes glistened from behind round glasses that were too big for her face. She lived alone in the hut, isolated in a frozen fold of the mountains. She stayed through the fierce winter months, with only a souring outhouse and no heating other than a stove fire, and welcomed weary trekkers who stumbled into her doorway.
Her name wasn’t Gollum. However, her thinning hair, dark skin, and small wiry frame bore an uncanny resemblance to the fictional creature. I’m ashamed to say I know her by no other name. But she spoke no English, and I could only say “hi”, “please”, and “thank you” in very bad Bulgarian.
Len and I followed her inside. We’d been climbing towards the seven lakes cupped in the peaks of the Rila mountain range. I stomped in my boots free from frozen mud, and shut out the gusts of icy wind behind me.
I was a little nervous. The hut had three floors, and narrow corridors. We seemed to be the only lodgers. The hut perched next to a reedy, frozen lake at the peak of the Rila Mountains. There were no roads, no trails, and no other care takers, other than the shrivelled enigma who handed us firewood for our stove, along with a room key.
Although she babbled pleasantly, and welcomed us with “chay” – hot herbal tea to defrost our frozen fingers, I still regarded Gollum with some distrust. What was she doing up here, in the wilderness, all alone? Was she somebody’s grandmother? She looked to be at least 70. Her white hair was held back with a child’s plastic barrette and even though it was only late October, she wore a dark blue sweat shirt with “Silent Night” printed in silver glitter.
No matter the strange appearance of our host, we could not refuse the hospitality, and thanked her as she left us in her canteen with warm cups against our fingers. The aroma of spices and roasted dried fruits wafted from a corner stove. The scent infused the air, cloves and apple settled over us like a thick blanket.
Sitting in the heated room, Len and I paused for a moment with our chay to contemplate the problem of my busted zipper and open coat. It had become stubbornly snagged on the cloth at the base of my coat that morning, and we’d been unable to free it, or even budge it in the slightest. My yanking proved futile. Len was out of ideas, when from the shadows this tiny Gollum-shaped Bulgarian woman approached and did an incredible thing. She saw me struggling with the damn stuck zipper, mumbled in Bulgarian, and took my coat off my lap. She then reached for a large jagged knife, and aggressively began to saw the sharp knife back and forth against the zipper teeth and the fabric. We watched in horror as her thin wrinkled skin came dangerously close to the blade. Her hands moved furiously and after a few minutes, she cut victoriously through the stuck cloth.
I felt shamed. Len and I had worked for ages and neither of us could get it to budge. We’d even tried using the same knife we’d seen Gollum just use. This was truly a mountain woman. She retrieved a sewing needle and thread and sewed up the torn jacket. What an amazing lady!! I exclaimed “Thank you! Thank you!” in very bad Bulgarian – probably the equivalent of “Me thank! Me thank!” She beamed back at us, and dismissed us with a wave of her wrinkled hand, and a tumble of laughing Bulgarian.
Len, in his patchy grasp of her language, braved asking Gollum about our planned destination: a trail over the peak then down the mountainside towards a monastery. Gollum eyes grew wide as she shook her little wrinkled head. Her lips blew out and she waved her hands, and said in her crackly voice something that sounded like “snitch, snitch”. Snitch? What is snitch? Snow. And from her somewhat frantic gestures and lip-blowing, the snow was bad snow, and we understood that it was unsafe to attempt the climb. We were a little disappointed, but if this mountain woman can survive winters in isolated huts on the Bulgarian mountains, content herself with using a damp and souring outhouse, and free stubborn zippers from their tracks, and she said it was unsafe, then it probably was.
The next morning, after a restless sleep, we departed into the icy wind. We set out down the rocky mountainside, certain that Gollum was snug by her stove, and not loping sneakily between the boulders behind us in the snow.