Story by Greg Beatty
Jason held up his tablet.
His father admired the image filling the screen. "Oh, that's a beauty! A great picture of a great bird."
"Thank you," Jason said.
"Too bad it doesn't count for your total."
Jason and his dad had a bet. Everyone in their family was always trying to learn, and they tried different ways to learn different things depending on what it was, when it was, and where they were. When they went to Mexico, they tried speaking Spanish all the time. When they learned new recipes, they took turns making the dishes. And this summer, as they worked on science, they had a bet.
There was a lot on the line. Instead of getting an allowance that summer, any money Jason got from his dad came from identifying birds. (His sister, Kandice, was doing bugs.) He got a certain amount per bird, more if he identified male and female of the same species, more still if he could prove he'd seen the eggs in a nest, even more if he recorded the bird's song, and, finally, special payoffs if he got rare birds or reached 100 bird species total.
Jason was therefore pretty angry when he asked, "Why not!"
His dad flicked a finger at the ruffled gray-blue feathers atop the small bird's head, then let his finger move along the curve of the feathery apricot shape of the bird's breast. "This is a nearly perfect picture of a nearly perfect specimen. The photographer took a fine picture of this bird. What's it weigh, half an ounce?"
"Me. Dad, the photographer was me. I took that picture."
"Jason." His father's voice got darker and firmer. "What have I told you about honesty?"
"A lot." Jason stared back at his dad. "You also taught me about trust and good manners."
The two glared at one another, then Jason said, "Dad. I know I took that picture. What makes you say I didn't?"
"Sticking to your story, eh? Well, okay, I'll play along."
Mr. Eldridge turned and walked to his den, where bookcases lined the walls, floor to ceiling, everywhere except for doors and windows. Without having to look, he reached out and pulled a massive, somewhat worn, book from a shelf at about knee level.
He swung it to chest height with one hand but needed both to keep it level as he flipped through until he found the page he wanted.
He cleared his throat. "The black-throated finch is found in woodlands throughout broad regions of northeast Australia. It has gone extinct in New South Wales, last seen there in the 1990s. However…"
He read on for a bit, reading descriptions of the bird's practices and preferences. After a while he paused, flipped back to the glossy divider page. He turned it toward Jason, to make sure he saw the map of Australia. "This is a fine bird, but it is not a distance flier. It came from 8000 miles away."
Jason's father put The World Encyclopedia of Birds back on the shelf, as if the matter were finished. He even dusted his hands with a "so there" gesture.
For a moment, Jason was so mad he couldn't speak. After a while he nodded once and turned his tablet off. He tried, but it really wasn't as final a gesture as his dad slapping the book shut. Books just had so much authority. But truth has even more authority, so Jason bided his time and, like a good scientist, paid attention to everything, keeping track and accumulating evidence.
A week later Jason, his father, and Kandice were watching a short cartoon explaining the Big Bang. Kandice focused her question on the moment of the Big Bang itself, trying to understand why it happened and how physicists knew it happened at all, since there was no way for people to be there. Jason focused his questions on that brief time, right after the Bang, when the laws of the universe were different.
"So Dad, what you're saying is, even though the laws of science are the same, the laws of physics have changed, at least once?"
His father blinked twice. Then he smiled. "That is a good point—a very good one. You're right. That's a tremendous challenge that most people don't ever realize."
Mr. Eldridge's smile was warm and proud. Jason's had a bit of an edge.
Jason kept up his bird tally, logging other birds native to their home state of Oregon, and kept up the rest of his lessons. However, he also made plans to talk to his dad again. When the family went to the Portland Rose Garden for a picnic, Jason saw his opportunity. After the family ate, Jason asked if they could also go through the Japanese garden, just across the way.
It was an easy sell, since Mrs. Eldridge liked gardening and design, and the garden also had a tea house on the grounds. They wandered along the trails, enjoying a surprisingly sunny day for so early in the season. The whole family paused on a bridge, looking down at their reflections in the water, watching their faces ripple when they dropped in little leaves and twigs.
When his mom and sister walked ahead to look at the tea house, Jason made his move. "This really is a cool place, Dad. I have to say though, it seems weird to have a Japanese garden here, so far from Japan.”
"It is strange," his father agreed. "I mean, it has been here for more than 50 years now, so it seems kind of normal, but it took a lot of work to put together. Building the tea house. Designing the paths and bridges. Deciding how to work with native plants and which ones they needed to bring from Japan.”
"Like that Japanese maple?"
"Exactly. That's a great example because people moved those trees a long time ago, like 200 years."
"So when people move places, sometimes they bring plants from other places with them?"
"Yes, again, exactly! They bring plants, and animals, sometimes on purpose and with great success, like this garden. Other times, invasive species disrupt environments and…"
Mr. Eldridge trailed off. He let the remaining twigs he had in his hands fall to the water below in a sudden, uneven plop. His pond face rippled.
"You are saying you really did take that picture of a black-throated finch."
Jason smiled and let a leaf fall. It hit the water without a sound. "Am I?"
"You're saying my reference book is wrong."
Jason let another leaf drop. "When did you get it?"
"It was a gift from…man, that was a long time ago."
Mr. Eldridge took two steps, crossing the midpoint on the bridge, and hugged his son.
"You know Jason," he said. "I think we need to review that bird tally of yours. I think your count might be a little low."
"Sounds good Dad," Jason said.
"Did I ever tell you about how scientists will repeat one another's experiments? If they can replicate their results—redo the experiment and get the same results— that's confirmation. It makes the experiment more valid."
"So…you want me to show you where I took the picture?"
"I would love to take my own picture of a black-throated finch. In North America."
The two of them walked on, following the winding path together.
Greg Beatty is an American writer specializing in short fiction (and moving into children's books). He holds a PhD in English, and teaches college when he's not writing, walking dogs, or playing with kids. He recently started republishing some of his short stories. You can find them on Payhip: https://payhip.com/GregBeatty
This story by Greg Beatty was the winner of children's writing in our recent writing competition with the theme "Passed Down." Follow us on Facebook and join our newsletter to receive invitations to future competitions.