Fifty years ago.
It was fifty years ago, on a crisp winters morning, with Padrig and Michael out bothering a football, like they often would. Ould Nan was hunching her way up the winding road, but they didn’t see her, there were free kicks to be had and even a few headers, and Padrig kicked the ball hard, and it hit the old woman, and she lay wheezing in the ditch where she’d been knocked.
She rose up on her spindly arms, and they’d never heard her cursing before, but she was cursing now, and it wasn’t the same as when Uncle Tom was back from wherever he’d been with the stink of drink on him, and bad words dropping out of his mouth everywhere, but she was cursing, old words, that nobody had heard for many years. The two boys ran back towards the house, the football abandoned. Michael tripped as he was running, and Padrig ran on because he was too afraid to even look back, never mind stop to see, and he dived in the door of the house and he never saw Michael again.
Everyone searched and searched for weeks but there was no sign. Nan died not too long after and took whatever she knew with her to the beyond, and nobody would have been able to pry any secrets out of those thin hard lips anyway. Padrig went out looking for his brother for months after everyone else had given up. He came back one night and he knelt in the long grass and he wept for hours not far from where they had been playing before everything turned out the way it did.
He lived his life, but he never forgave himself. He never married, and when the time came he inherited the farm, and eventually he lived there alone. He grew too old to tend the crops. He grew too old to tend the animals. He’d gather wood for the fire and drink the tea with night closing in.
One night after a fierce wild storm, he came outside and the pine tree in the front yard was torn up and uprooted. With the help of some neighbours he had all the branches hewn off within a few days, and later they cut the trunk into handy-sized logs for the hearth.
It was that evening, when the fire was lit that he noticed it. There in the wood grain. A face he’d never forgotten. A face that had haunted him for his whole life. Michael, his brother, wrinkled and lined now but unmistakable, Michael, looking out from the wood grain, a twisted effigy, and silent as a stone.