Keon looked out hopefully across the hazy field, scanning the low sky for signs of flight.
The sun was starting to dip below the trees on the ridged hill in front of him, making long shadows of the barley growing to his hips.
He’d been researching migration and mating patterns of owls, specifically barn owls, or The Great Alba, as he liked to call them.
He’d commuted back and forth from his desk in the buzzing city college campus, to several farms and roadside lay-bys in the surrounding counties to collect data.
It had become his life, taking up most of his waking, and sleeping, hours with thoughts, ideas, and new theories that never ceased.
He was so curious about these silent gliding birds of prey it bordered on obsession. When he was at his desk, he wished he could be out in the fields, waiting to spot and identify a new owl or hoping to hear a breeding pairs call.
He was taking as much equipment from the office as possible so that he could document data more freely, and maximise his time on the ground.
The trouble was, the more time he spent looking and waiting out in the open for his feathered subjects, the fewer and fewer he noticed.
He looked back at past data to check, and sure enough, there had been a steady decline in recorded sightings since before he’d been working on the ground collecting data.
Frustrated, Keon put back his charts, retrieved his battered and almost empty flask from under the passenger seat and took a last small gulp of lukewarm coffee. He lent back in his chair, not really thinking, and feeling lost.
To be honest he missed just seeing the owls on a regular basis. It was, of course, the main reason he was doing this work: he loved to watch them swoop, to see them bob their round heads, sharply looking his way with their huge eyes when he broke a twig clumsily beneath his boots.
Was his constant presence too much? Were they threatened, or just irritated with this nosey human in their space?
Keon had dropped out of college five and a half months before his mission to document these birds had started. He had been studying biology, but several months into his first year had been unable to meet the demand and grade level to pass with much success.
He left, and reached out to every research facility, science college, and biology program with desperation to assist on any project available. He was less than successful in that too. Until one day when he bumped into one of his old biology professors on a quiet Wednesday afternoon.
This professor had seen potential in Keon as a student, and had urged him to stay at the college. He was disappointed when Keon had left, and now, was disheartened to hear Keon had been struggling to settle since. They talked over coffee; Keon grateful for the empathetic ear.
After a while, the professor looked hard at Keon and asked him, ‘So, you need a job, basically?’ Keon blushed, and sheepishly shrugged. Yes. He needed a job.
The professor, lent back in his chair. ‘I have a friend who’s conducting a small project on owls, he reached out the other week asking if I could spare any students to pick up the slack.’ He took a long sip of coffee and looked back at Keon, whose eyes were now gleaming.
‘I’ll do anything they need.’ Keon gushed before the professor’s cup reached back to the table.
He made contact with the professor’s friend and arranged a meeting for the following week.
The friend, a squat middle-aged man, with large soft eyes, not unlike an owls, and a deep but gentle voice met him at the college library where he was returning a pile of books, all by the look of them to be on the biology of birds.
Keon helped him with the heavy solid door, and as they approached the front desk explained that he’d be keen to help with whatever the man needed for his project.
The man raised a wrinkled hand and smiled, ‘Dear boy, this is not an interview. You’re the only one. I’d take you on even if you had no interest in birds. Now, help me with these books.’
Over the next few weeks Keon worked with the professor’s friend, also a professor although retired from teaching. They organised his data, which had developed a cruel habit of sliding into heaped messes from the desks to the floors and back again. They catalogued, and filed, they covered pin boards with tables, graphs, and to-do lists.
Keon even brought his laptop and spent several painful days attempting to show the professor how to input data digitally. Keon was then made chief of all digital outsourcing.
The professor had begun this project several years earlier, after noticing the lack of barn owls in the wider rural areas that were becoming more developed. He had a theory that it was due to radio signals which disturbed their migration, hunting, and mating rhythms.
He had found patterns, but all were inconclusive, and he was starting to find it harder to manually collect enough data.
After Keon had been working with him for several weeks he decided that he needed to be on the ground with him. So, Keon joined him on his trips out into the fields and hedge rows to record sightings of the birds.
They worked well together, quietly sitting, exchanging odd words here and there, but mainly they waited and watched.
The professor's legs got slower, his back became stiffer, and his eyes grew tired. His trips out to watch the birds, or lack thereof, became fewer and he spent most of his time working on the project in the office, while Keon took on responsibility of collecting new data.
One day Keon realised he’d been out on assignment for over a month without the professor with him and felt suddenly lonely. He felt for the man, in his ageing state. Keon noticed the shaking hands and slow feet. He returned to his car, after a long and owl-less evening, and heading back to the college.
Keon climbed up the stone steps and hurried along the corridor to the office where he knew the professor would be. They always worked into the night, and it had become common place for Keon and him to share take-out and discuss future plans for the project.
He pushed open the unlocked door, files and laptop under his arm, Chinese food in hand, and distractedly said, ‘Phil, do you want soup or dumplings first? Phil?’
The man was slumped, resting in his chair. But as Keon looked closer, he realised it was the deepest and most absolute rest of all.
A modest funeral was held a week later at the edge of town. Keon’s old professor was there and he motioned for them to speak after the service.
‘You know Keon, Phil often told me how proud he was of you. You’ve worked so hard and so well. He was very impressed, very fond of you.’
‘Thanks’ said Keon flatly. He was more muted than normal. He hadn’t stopped for months, but the past seven days he’d been basically stationary, and it had hit his energy like a train.
The two men spoke some more pleasantries before Keon made his excuses and headed back to the office.
It was cold and dark inside. It smelt like Phil. His musty suits, the cheap coffee he insisted on, and the extra strong mints he kept in a shallow mental tin on his desk.
Keon looked around, as if hoping to see Phill in one corner, looking over some notes or reading from a book. But there was no one there.
He sat down at Phils desk, looking, searching, over its contents. One thing which hadn’t changed in all the time he’d been working with him was Phils inability to organise or keep anything tidy for more than five minutes.
Data sheets, discarded mugs, pens, open books, notes scribbled on loose bits of paper, and a letter, addressed to Keon.
He stared at it for a while. Then sat back and opened the cream coloured envelope.
Keon, my boy,
Like everyone, my time is coming. Although I feel it has crept up on me faster than I would have liked.
Working with you these past months has been a great joy and a greater pleasure. Thank you for indulging an old man and his wishful thinking.
Keep going, and remember: this is your one life. Cherish it. Enjoy it. Use it.
Take care my boy,
Keon leaned into the soft leather of the chair, the last few words from his friend and mentor held in his hand. Looking around the office once more he felt so tired. Before long, his eyes closed heavily, and he slept.
Waking slowly, massaging the back of his neck, Keon blinked as the morning sun sent dust particles drifting around the room. He looked down at the mound of papers on the desk in front of him, Phils letter had fallen to the floor beside him.
He reached down, folded it, and put it in the pocket of his shirt before standing and stretching. Right, he thought, better get started.
He spent the rest of the day sorting Phils desk, reorganising his notes and data sheets, and plotting on a map the next set of owl look-outs.
Keon worked like this for the next six weeks, in and out of the office, and spending all night out searching for his phantom birds.
One day, he was stood by the edge of a barley field he’d frequently visited, the sun starting to dip below the trees in front of him.
He’d driven out to this field in a hurry and by the time he’d arrived at the lay-by he preferred to park in, realised he'd forgotten his phone and other tools, as well as the new set of data sheets he’d printed the previous morning.
It seemed silly to simply turn around and head back to the office, so he decided to stay a while and enjoy the cool breeze and the last of the summer sun.
He walked up to the wooden fence, side-stepped through it to the other side and stood, scanning the tree line on the other side of the wide field, out of habit more than anything else.
Nothing. As usual, he thought.
He made to turn back to his car, hoping there might be the remains of a sandwich or an apple hidden somewhere, but at that same moment he heard it - a great screech, a pitch he hadn’t heard for far too long.
Keon held his breath, looking in all directions, and then he saw her, The Great Alba, sitting on a low branch of a tree about fifty feet away, her eyes fixed on him.
They at each other for what felt like hours, until something rustled in the barley which twitched and shook. This caught the attention of the owl who pushed into the branch, opened her wings, and dropped effortlessly into the air.
With total grace she flew, gliding in one swoop across the field, past Keon, to the other side, and into the darkness of the trees.
There was a screech, and then another, and another.
Keon let out a long deep breath, and smiled, the barn owls were back.