“Hey! Where do you think you’re going?”
Nika stopped at the farmhouse gate and sheepishly turned to face his father. “To the tavern,” he muttered, hoping that was an acceptable response.
“Why, boy? The tavern’s closed.”
“Sopiko said she still needs me.” And Tamuna’s been sick all day.
His father jabbed the pitchfork into the ground and swore. “That damn woman had better be paying you for this. Have you had your supper yet?”
“No, sir, I—”
“Good. Eat it there.” He turned to the yard, where Nika’s two older brothers had paused in their work. “Giga! Lasha! What are you doing standing around? Get back to stacking those cornstalks!”
“Remember: Who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat!”
Nika took that as his cue to leave. He slipped out the gate and pulled it shut before dashing across the dusty lane and into the fallow field on the other side. The tall grass brushed against his legs, ticking his skin through the holes in his pants, but he kept running until he was well out of sight. Only then did he slow down enough to catch his breath.
Tamuna was so sick that Sopiko had closed the tavern—which she never, ever did. When he’d arrived in the morning, the door had been locked. Only after knocking for several minutes had Sopiko finally opened it.
“Come back later,” Sopiko had told him when he’d come around back. “Tamuna’s taken ill, and we’ve closed down the tavern until she’s better.”
“She’s ill?” Nika had asked, his stomach falling. “What do you mean? Is she going to be all right? What happened?”
“We don’t know. We found her passed out on the floor in the private room, and she hasn’t woken up since. Come back this evening; we may need you then.”
Nika had wanted to ask more, but Sopiko had pressed a few coppers into his hand and sent him on his way home. His father had thrown the meager coin angrily against the wall, and probably would have beaten him, except that his mother had intervened. He was a harsh man, and Nika wasn’t his favorite. Sometimes, Nika wondered if his father cared about him at all.
Thoughts like these always made his heart heavy. But the cool autumn breeze and the splash of gold across the evening sky soon lightened his spirits. A rooster crowed somewhere in the distance, and the sound of cows mooing in the thicket made him smile. Old Giorgi’s cow had just had a calf a few days ago, and he’d been there to witness the birth. It was amazing how the little ones could walk almost from the moment they left the womb.
Sometimes, when he wasn’t busy, he liked to sit in the shade of a tree and watch the mother hens roam the yard with their broods. While the little chicks pecked and played, the mother hen stood watch, chasing away anyone who dared come too close. And in the evening, while the other chickens flew into the trees to roost, the mother hen would stay on the ground and gather all her chicks under her wings, protecting them throughout the night.
Of course, there was always a straggler who didn’t get to the food as fast, or couldn’t keep up with the rest. Whenever he could, Nika would take the straggler aside and hand-feed it to make sure it grew up strong. Sometimes, it was enough to make a difference.
The footpath turned into the wide lane that led from the village to the western mountains. He passed a few cows and a small clutch of geese, who moved to the other side of the dirt road as he walked past.
In a lot of ways, his friend Tamuna was a straggler. Just as the mother hens knew the difference between their chicks and the ones that didn’t truly belong to them, Sopiko clearly knew that Tamuna wasn’t her true daughter. It showed in her stern demeanor and overly-critical eye. Of course, Tamuna never saw it that way. When she needed someone to talk to, though, he always tried to be there for her. He often stayed in the stables late into the night just to talk with her, after all her chores were done.