The Moving Finger


The day was very fine.  The sky was blue and golden, the sun riding 
high and hot above the distant mountains.  A cold wind out of the 
desert moderated the heat.  A fine day.  The heavy wooden door in front
of me swung back on its hinges, framing a young priest with very short,
red hair.
     "May I help you?"
     "I'd like to speak with Father Ott.  My name is Mike Kavanagh."
     "Is he expecting you?"
     "Sooner or later, Father.  Sooner or later."
     "Please come in," he said, ushering me into the long hall that led
back into the residence.  He conducted me to a room furnished with deep
chairs, the wooden frames supporting cushions covered in black leather, 
and walls of books.  "Please make yourself comfortable," he said.  "I 
will discover if Father Ott is unengaged."
     "Thank you."  The young priest left.
     I did not sit immediately, but toured the shelves.  They were made
of dark and heavy wood, stark against the white plaster walls.  The 
selection of books they held, too, was stark: St Augustine's
Confessions, Santa Teresa de Avila, San Juan de la Cruz, the obligatory
volumes of Aquinas and Anselm.  More secular work included Plato and 
Aristotle, and some relative contemporaries like Erich Fromm.  The Holy
Bible occupied a baroquely carved lectern in front of a tall,
diamond-paned window.  Literature was represented: Milton and Dante, 
Goethe and Donne.  All in all, what you might expect of a priest's 
     Father Ott came into the room a while later, interrupting my 
perusal of the one more-or-less completely secular volume on the 
shelves - an Oxford Press poetry anthology.  I laid the volume aside, 
bidding silent farewell to Proserpine's garden, and rose to greet him.
He shook my hand, murmured a quiet greeting, and motioned me to sit, 
taking a chair facing mine at an oblique angle.
     "What've you been up to, Mike?" he asked, slipping into the 
counselor persona with a practiced ease that I had to admire, in the 
     "You ought to convince your new doorman to grow his hair," I said.
"The crewcut makes him look gay."
     He smiled briefly, but said nothing.
     I looked around the room.  "You could liven up your library a 
little, you know.  The chairs are nice and comfy, but its hard to relax
with all these stern, iron morals lining the shelves."
     He just looked at me steadily with those shadowed, grey eyes, and
said nothing.  I began to get a little irritated by his cheap psych 
tactics.  It didn't improve my mood that my own cheap psych tactics 
hadn't gotten a rise.
     "So what did you want to see me about?" I asked him finally.
     He quirked an eyebrow.  "I didn't issue a summons, Mike.  Just a 
friendly invitation.  I was curious to hear how you were getting on.  
You seemed a bit down in the hospital."
     "I'm doing okay," I said.  "The picketers are gone from my 
driveway, and the reporters have stopped following my wife and kids 
around.  I had a short discussion with a couple of nice young college 
students who think I'm a mass-murderer.  My brother-in-law is still 
trying to get me to sign a waiver so he can get his book deal, but 
heck - you can't have everything, right?"
     "How are your boys bearing up?"
     I sighed.  "As well as can be expected, I guess.  Their teachers 
tell Teresa they aren't being harassed or teased by the other kids as 
much, and their grades are starting to come back up.  They don't want 
anything to do with their father the butcher, though.  Neither does 
their mother, for that matter, though she pretends otherwise."
     "Why do you think she's pretending?"
     "God!  How could she not be pretending?  These last few months she
and the kids went through hell!   She stood by me through it all, but 
there was always that shadow behind her eyes, that doubt.  She never 
really believed with her whole heart that I was innocent."
     "You don't think so?"
     "How could she?  I never believed it.  I still don't know what 
happened in that jungle.  I play the scenarios over in my head 
constantly, how it really could have happened this way or that, but all
of my constructions founder on two immovable rocks.  First, that I had 
cut away more than two years of my life rather than live with their 
memory.  And second..."
     I closed my eyes, the ghost of a girl's delicate, tear-stained 
face floating before me.  "And second," Father Ott finished for me, 
"however much you may wish it, you can not bring yourself to doubt 
Leena Pagang's testimony."
     "Yes," I whispered, hoarsely.
     "You left that jungle with holes in your body, malaria in your 
blood, and horror in your heart. You had seen the headless corpses of 
the men you'd led, and the torn bodies of innocents.  God only knows 
what else you'd been through."  He leaned forward, grasped my hand.  
"Look at me, Mike."  I returned his gaze, meeting intensity with pain.
"You'll never know what drove you to Replay Therapy.  Dr Edelhart was 
right - you are that man no longer.  He died with your memories, and 
now you seek to judge him.  You see your decision to forget as a 
personal indictment of guilt, because you can not really imagine what 
might drive a man like Lt Kavanagh to the desperate course he took.  
You have no more right to judge him than any other man who stayed 
safely at home.  You were never there."
     He released my hand, leaned back in his chair.  "So much for your 
first 'rock' - it is the stone of ignorance.  As for the second...I too
believe the Penan girl's story.  But remember, she never saw you shoot
the old headman, Mike, nor heard you give the order to kill the 
     "Ben Marshak heard it well enough."
     "Did he?  Did he really?  I know you went to see him, Mike.  I 
think it was a mistake."
     I stared.  "How did you know about that?"
     "Teresa told me."
     "Teresa's been to see you?"
     "She's worried about you Mike.  She says you spend all your free 
time at the library, studying everything they have on Borneo, or 
brooding.  And contrary to your belief, she has no doubt at all about 
your innocence.  You see the concern in her eyes, and you take it for 
doubt, but it is not true."
     I looked at him dumbly.
     "Never mind that, now.  It was a mistake for you to see Marshak. 
He hates you, Mike.  He was certain to tell you what he did, no matter 
what the truth was."
     "Yes, father, but there's the point.  Why should he hate me?  
We'd been friends before the war, despite our difference in rank.  
We'd respected each other.  Why should he hate me, if I had not done 
something deserving of hate?"  I realized I was leaning forward in the 
chair, my fingers clenched into the padded arms.  Deliberately I 
loosened my grip, forced my arms to relax.
     Father Ott sat silent for a moment.  "Who can tell?" he asked 
rhetorically.  "Of your whole platoon, only you and he survived.  If 
you were the man who had lived that year and a half in the Borneo 
jungle, you might know why and how a man can hate as Marshak hates, but
you are not that man.  I've been in this business long enough to know 
by what twisted reasons a man can justify hatred."
      He shrugged.  "Back to the longhouse.  You were racked with 
malaria, delirious, and in pain.  The medication that the girl saw your
unit medic give you in that room could well have been a strong 
sedative.  By the time the shooting started, for whatever reason, you 
may well have been completely disoriented."
     His face blurred through my helpless tears.  "Don't you think I've
thought of that!" I half raved, half pleaded.  "Don't you think I've 
clutched that straw with all my heart!  But I can't believe it!  I 
can't believe it's true just because I want it to be!  Can't you 
understand that?!"
     "Yes, Mike," he said quietly, looking me straight in the eyes.  
"I do.  More than you can know.  And now, you have to understand two 
things; that whatever you or anyone else may believe, you are never, 
ever going to know in this life what you did that night, and that you 
are going to have to live with that knowledge."
     I stared down at my fists, clenched in my lap.  "I don't know if I
can."  I said, my voice breaking.
     "You must," said Father Ott, quietly, pitilessly.  "You will not 
abandon your family through the sin of self-destruction.  And you will 
not delude yourself into thinking they would be better off without you.
You will live with it."
     We sat in silence for a long while after that, long enough for 
sunlight focused through the window's diamond panes to move an inch 
across the dark, wooden floor.  When I looked up, he was watching me, 
steadily.  "That book at your elbow," he said, nodding at the Oxford 
anthology, "has a poem in it, and within the poem is this verse:
"The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ, "Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit "Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, "Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it."
I sat and watched the sunbeams on the floor (minnows in dark water, she had said). They faded into the dark wood grain as a cloud passed before the sun. I wondered if they'd come back. I waited to see. The End