‘The Big Burping Experiment’ by Anna Faherty

Kyoto first noticed them on that spring day that felt like the height of summer. A dozen large white birds squawking on the sunny barn roof. The next day, the number doubled. Within a week, there were so many, Kyoto feared the roof might cave in. She quickly forgot her worries, though, when the far field opened a whole month early because of the unusually warm weather.

“Yuum!” mooed Kyoto’s brother Volta as they trotted through the newly opened gate to their favourite hillock. “I’ve been waiting for this all winter.” Volta stopped and pulled up a clump of grass. He sucked a few blades into his mouth, wiped his lips with his long, sloppy tongue and let out a burp so loud it made Kyoto jump.

“Volta!” said Kyoto, nudging her brother’s shoulder with her nose.

“It’s only natural,” said Volta. “The yummier the grass, the more burping!” As if to prove the point, Volta burped again. Kyoto sighed. What else could she expect from the calf who won ‘best burper’ in the herd’s annual talent contest: her only brother.

When Kyoto bent down to grab a mouthful for herself, a large white bird swished past her nose and landed on a patch of grass between her and her brother.

“Over here,” squeaked the bird, pointing its beak straight at Volta. “It’s this one, Kitty. I’m sure of it.” Kyoto looked around to see who Kitty was. As she did so, a smaller bird swerved around her ear and flew towards her brother.

Kyoto gulped as the new bird circled Volta’s face, drawing ever closer to his eyes. Scraping her hooves across the grass, Kyoto stretched her head up as high as she could and mooed loudly, “leave my brother alone!”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” said the bird on the grass. “We need to stop him burping. Our lives depend on it.”

“It’s not me,” said Volta. “It’s… It’s the grass.” He spun around, keeping his eyes on the circling bird, until he began to wobble. A moment later his knees gave way and he fell, face-down, on the grass he blamed for his burping.

“That was easy,” said Kitty as she came in to land. “But we don’t really need to kill him, do we?”

Before Kyoto could say anything, the big bird announced, “the next flock arrives tomorrow. You can do it then.” It flapped its black-tipped wings, leapt off the grass and flew away. Kitty glanced at Kyoto, then quickly dropped her head, as if she didn’t want to look at her or Volta.

“Um…, did you say ’kill’?” said Kyoto. She stared straight at Kitty as she spoke.

“I’m sorry, but I have to do it,” said Kitty. She still didn’t look at Kyoto. Instead, she picked at a strand of seaweed wrapped around her ankle. Her slim yellow beak looked as sharp as a dagger. Kyoto imagined what dozens of those daggers could do to Volta, or to her. Tomorrow there would be even more of them!

“You can’t!” mooed Kyoto, skipping down the hillock to sniff Volta’s tummy. Then she kicked it, but her brother didn’t even burp. Kitty finally looked at him again.

“You might be right,” said Kitty. “I mean, I’ve never killed anything bigger than a fish. But we can hardly find any fish these days. That’s the problem.”

“And what’s that got to do with Volta?” snapped Kyoto.

“There’s not enough food to go around,” said Kitty, who had now hopped down to join the two calves. She flapped her wings by Volta’s nose and Volta’ s nose twitched back. “Lots of the birds on the barn are just feather and bone now,” said Kitty. “They squawk so much because they’re desperate for something… anything… to eat.”

For the first time since the birds arrived, Kyoto felt sorry for them. She and Volta never ran out of food. The day before, they spent the whole morning feeding on grass and hay, and the whole afternoon re-chewing their morning meal. It was like that every day. She always had food in her mouth, or in one of her stomachs.

“That’s awful,” said Kyoto, “but I don’t see what any of that has got to do with us. Unless you want to eat grass – we’ve got plenty…”

Kitty shook her head. “Grass is like seaweed. Good for nests, but nothing else.”

“Then what?” said Kyoto as Volta burped in her ear, a sure sign he was awake.

Kyoto and Volta spent the rest of the afternoon listening to Kitty as she explained everything. She told them about her seaside home and how the water there got warmer every year. She said that meant there were less fish to eat. And she said the birds couldn’t do anything about it because it was really all Volta’s fault.

“Every time Volta burps,” said Kitty, “a little blob of gas squeaks out from his stomach. All those gassy blobs float up above the clouds and stick together. They make a sort of roof above the Earth. It’s a bit like the glass on top of a greenhouse…”

“There’s a greenhouse behind the barn,” said Volta, who liked to press his nose against the windows and sniff inside. “Greenhouse plants smell soooo sweet!”

“I bet they do,” said Kitty. “During the day, the glass lets the sun warm them up. At night, it keeps the heat in, so they don’t get cold. But making a greenhouse around the Earth isn’t such a good idea. Keeping all that heat in makes the sea warmer and warmer. Your burps,” she looked at Volta and squawked, “are changing the world.”

“Wow,” said Volta, who felt as proud as when he had won the ‘best burper’ award.

“That’s not a good thing,” said Kyoto, rolling her eyes. “But I’ve got an idea.” She turned to face Kitty. “You aren’t going to do anything until tomorrow are you?” Kitty shook her head. “So, let us try and sort it out tonight, then?”

“I guess that’s OK,” said Kitty. “But I’ll be back.” She looked at Volta and then at Kyoto. “We have to stop the burping. I’m sorry, but we don’t have any choice.”

“But maybe we do,” said Kyoto, who suddenly felt more hopeful.

 “What’s your big idea, then?” asked Volta after Kitty flew off.

“It’s not really an idea yet,” said Kyoto. “It’s more of an… an experiment.”

“An experi-tent?” said Volta. “Is that like another greenhouse thing?”

“No,” said Kyoto. “But it might help us stop making giant greenhouses. If we have all the right things. So, get your two burpiest friends and collect as much of this stuff as you can.” She reeled off a list of equipment, including grass from the bottom field, grass from the top field, hay, corn, daffodils, daisies and gorse.

“It sounds like a feast,” said Volta, licking his lips.

“Just don’t eat any of it until you get back to the barn,” said Kyoto, who trotted off to get everything ready. She cleared a space behind the hay bales in the corner of the barn, kicked some soil across the floor, set up a row of empty buckets and hung the farmer’s old cowbell from a hook on the wall. When Volta got back, she asked him and his friends to put each of the plants they had collected in a different bucket.

“OK,” said Kyoto. “I think you might burp less – or more – when you eat different things. We need to test that by doing an experiment. When I ring the bell, start eating from the first bucket. Every time you burp I’ll scrape the ground. After a rest, we’ll move on to the second bucket. And so on…”

“So, we’re allowed to burp?” said Volta. Ever since Kitty told him he was to blame for there being no fish, Volta had held all his burps in. His tummy swelled up so big he felt like a balloon about to burst.

“Yes, just burp naturally,” said Kyoto. “We don’t want to affect the results.” Volta let out the loudest burp Kyoto had ever heard. When everyone had recovered from the shock, it was time to begin the experiment.

“Three…, two…, one…,” said Kyoto. She rung the bell and Volta and his friends threw their heads into the first bucket. By the time they licked the last bucket clean, a sliver of sunlight had crept under the barn door. Kitty appeared a few minutes later. She hopped into the barn and flew over to join Kyoto and her burping helpers.

“The new flock will be here in about an hour. Then it will be time.”

“It didn’t work…” said Kyoto, who couldn’t look at Kitty or her brother. “There were fewer burps with daisies, but still too many to make a difference.”

“What about that?” asked Volta, sniffing at Kitty’s foot.

“You can’t eat her foot!” said Kyoto. Though maybe they could do something to Kitty’s feet to stop her attacking Volta.

“Not her foot,” said Volta. “That!” He licked the piece of seaweed stubbornly wrapped around Kitty’s ankle and winced. “Ugh! Salty…”

“You never know,” said Kyoto. She was willing to try anything to save her brother. “But we’d need more than that to test it properly…”

“I’ll deal with it,” said Kitty. She flapped out of the barn without another word. A few minutes later she reappeared with a small flock of birds. Kyoto panicked – they were here for Volta. She hurried her brother and his friends towards the far end of the barn, but there was no escape. The calves mooed as loud as they could. “It’s OK,” squawked Kitty. “We don’t want to hurt you. We’ve brought more seaweed.” She pointed her beak at the salty green strands wound round the other birds’ feet.

Kyoto let out a sigh of relief and quickly set things up for a new test. Kitty collected all the seaweed and dropped it in a bucket. Volta and his friends lined up for what might be their last meal. And Kyoto gave a final countdown and rang the cowbell. 

The moment the calves had finished eating, everyone looked at the earth beside the seaweed bucket. Kyoto had only scratched the ground there once.

“We’ve done it,” mooed Kyoto, as the rest of the herd trotted into the barn to find out what all the noise was about. It took a lot of explaining for Kyoto to fill them in. She told them about the warm sea, the missing fish, the hungry birds, Volta’s burping, the experiment to find a way to stop it and the seaweed discovery. It took a lot more talking before the herd decided what to do. But, for the sake of the birds, they finally agreed to leave the farm and move to the seaside. Despite the salty taste, they were happy to eat seaweed all morning, and to chew it again all afternoon.

“I feel so bad,” said Volta as the herd set off for their new home. “It’s all my fault…”

“Don’t,” said Kyoto. “You’re making a difference. To Kitty, and to everyone.”

“I hope so,” said Volta, who wondered what he would do all day if he wasn’t burping any more. “After all, if I changed the world once, I guess I can