How They Talk
Nance Knauer

Luther and Earl missed the deer but ended up driving into the side of Chester’s house. Earl yelled, “Doe!” and Luther steered left but forgot to brake. The truck dipped in and out of a shallow ditch and cleared the ground in a high arc toward Chester’s bedroom window. The glass broke away easily under the truck’s force, as did the flimsy aluminum siding and drywall on either side. When it was over, Earl’s ears popped in the silence, and Chester lay somewhere beneath them, his life complete.

“I should have killed the deer.” Luther’s eyes were closed, his face pale and heavy. “Not Chester.” He coughed quietly.

“You didn’t kill him.” Earl tried to pull himself up by holding on to the rearview mirror dangling above his head. It came off in his hands and he fell back against the seat. The nose of the truck, he realized, was angled toward the ceiling. Earl watched plaster dust billow in the tilted beams of the headlights. “He was already dead.”

“It happened so fast—I didn’t even see her,” Luther said. “Was it just the doe?”

Earl reached over and unhooked Luther’s safety belt. He noticed the steering wheel pressing into his brother’s enormous belly, and a line of blood dripping like candle wax from a cut on his brow.

“You break anything?” Earl asked.

Luther shook his head and cranked open the window. It squealed and stuck halfway down. His forehead rippled with confusion as he turned to stare at his brother.

“Can you open your door?” Earl asked.

Luther nodded, still dazed, then slowly pulled the handle and fell out onto the edge of Chester’s mattress. Earl and bits of broken glass dropped down beside him. Chester’s hand lay between them, palm up, fingers curled. The rest of his body lay beneath what used to be the wall and the front end of the truck.

“God almighty.” Earl backed off the sheets, then stood up and looked over at his brother. A purple bruise spread under one eye. “You OK?”

“I don’t know. Give me a minute for the shakes to pass.” Luther touched Chester’s palm, brushing away the plaster dust. “Already dead? Is that what you said?”

“C’mon, let’s get out of here.”

Luther worked with Chester’s hand until the second finger crossed over the first. “For luck,” he said.

Earl pulled his brother away by the arm. They climbed over the rubble into the heavy summer air, stopping at the barn to lean against the wall and look back. A low line of ground fog drifted from the river to curl around their ankles.

“We should call somebody.” Luther’s teeth chattered.

Earl waved his hand at the telephone cable that had ripped from the house to trail free into the shadows of the fox tail and chigger weed.

“Oh,” Luther said. His big body sagged and slid down along the wall until his butt hit the dirt.

Earl walked around and looked in the barn, favoring his right knee, which was beginning to ache. Chester’s ancient but carefully tended station wagon sat parked in the aisle way, keys dangling from the ignition. Chester had a gift and a fascination for all things mechanical. No stock animals had ever lived in the barn. Instead, each stall housed the shell or skeletal remains of tractors, jeeps, log splitters, and an assortment of mowers and spreaders. The wagon started first try and Earl eased it out into the yard where Luther was standing by the fence, his face turned up to the dusk-to-dawn yard light.

“Luth! C’mon, let’s go.”

His brother didn’t move. Earl turned off the engine and walked up behind him, following his line of sight. Summer insects were circling the light, their bodies hitting the glass with a clink, some of them falling away into the darkness. Looping in and out among them was a large shadow; the wing beats slow, the flight erratic.

“C’mon, it’s just a bat.”

Luther shook his head.


“Like hell. It’s too big.”

“Cecropia,” Luther said.

Earl sighed and stood beside his brother to watch the moth float in the blue light. Luther’s obsessions kept them from ever following a straight road. At times like this, he found it difficult to remember his brother was five years older. Another cecropia joined the first. They drifted down, circling, each the size of a man’s hand, and landed on the fence post. The wings shook and vibrated until their red markings were a blur.

Luther put his finger out and one of the moths latched on to it, still vibrating. He lifted his hand and pointed to the head.

“No mouth. That’s why they shake. It’s how they talk to each other.”

“Is that right?”

Luther nodded.

“So how do they eat?”

“They don’t.”

“Not much of a life.”

Luther rested his hand on the fence post and they watched the moth climb off. Earl slapped his shoulder.

“Let’s go, bud.”

“There’s a dead man lying under our truck.”

Earl turned, leaned his forearms on the fence and looked down at the post they’d helped Chester place over twenty years ago. He gave it a kick out of habit, frowning at its wobble.


“And he was already dead when we hit him?”

“I don’t need to say it again.”

Luther stroked the moth’s antennae.

“He was in a lot of pain,” Earl continued. “Said his heart was like an old dog, scratching at his chest, always wanting out. You know how long he’s been bad.”

Earl flexed his sore knee and shook it out. “He had me stay while he took the pills, in case something went wrong. I was going to tell you.”

“So, what, if the pills hadn’t worked, you’d have finished him off?”

“I don’t know, Luth. It all made sense at the time.” He looked up at the house. “No matter, now.”

“I’d like to sit with him for a while."

Earl rubbed his eyes hard. His stomach hurt. Not one moment of the day had gone in a good direction. He needed to get away and sort through it all.

“Go on, then. I’ll wait for you out here.” He watched Luther climb back into the house and crouch down beside Chester, heard him say something in a low voice and knew he wasn’t meant to hear it.

One of the moths had flown back up to the light, but the other still held on to the fence post. Earl glanced over to make sure Luther wasn’t watching, and then stretched out his finger toward the wings. He tried to keep it steady but his hand shook as he fingered the delicate edge of the tail curve. When he heard Luther returning, he stepped back and slammed his hands into his front pockets.

“You ready to go now?” said Earl.

“We can’t leave him like that.”

“I don’t know what else we can do.”

Luther sat down and leaned his head back against the barn. The bruised eye was almost swollen shut, so when he spoke to Earl, he cocked his head to one side, like he was listening to something in the ground.

“How come you didn’t tell me?” Luther asked.

Earl sat down beside his brother. His joints felt jumbled and loose.

“You remember that girl you almost married, the skinny one with the red hair?”


“No, no, the one who used to call you Pie Baby. She was always patting your belly and shaking her head like you had the wrong shirt on.”

“Grace.” Luther rubbed his stomach and squirmed. “Something not right about her.”

“Yeah, that’s the one.” Earl licked his thumb and smoothed down a torn flap of leather on his boot. “She works at the bank now. Did you know that?”

“Did I miss a turn, because I thought we were talking about Chester?”

Earl stood up and walked to the edge of the yard. Between the river and the road in front of Chester’s house a grove of enormous cottonwoods rustled, a hint of rain to come. The sharp scent of freshly split juniper and cedar logs stung the back of his throat when he drew in a deep breath. He’d been working on Chester’s wood pile all week. Anther few hours and the woodshed would have been filled and ready for winter. Earl covered his mouth and nose with both hands and waited. It didn’t take long before he ran out of air. His mouth opened automatically as his lungs sucked harder, searching for pockets of oxygen. Soft against the center of his palm, his lips pushed out the words I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. His vision dimmed and narrowed, but still he held out until his head and heart felt the same painful squeeze. Only then did he finally open his fingers, and rush after rush of cool air streamed into his chest.

A few moments passed before he turned around to face the barn. Luther’s head was still cocked so he could keep Earl in view.

“The pills, they weren’t enough, or he got scared—I don’t know—but they didn’t work.” Luther’s good eye blinked. “He was so sure—talked about it for months. He made me promise that if anything went wrong...” Earl felt his skin twitch like the leaves on the cottonwoods.

Luther stood up but didn’t move forward. When he spoke, Earl had to move closer to hear him.

“I don’t get what you’re saying.”

“He just kept nodding his head and I asked are you sure and he kept nodding because he couldn’t talk.” Earl grabbed Luther’s arm, then let it go. “He made me promise to help him.”

Luther’s face drew into a dark knot of realization. Earl turned away, walked to the wagon. Air leaked from his lungs into his chest, each shaky breath filling his body until he grew so light he had to grab the door handle to steady himself.

Luther convinced him to take Chester along. They laid his body in the back of the wagon, and Luther hobbled into the bedroom one last time to find a sheet to cover him. Dawn had come and gone unnoticed. Mercifully, the August sun couldn’t break through the heavy cloud cover and a light breeze cooled the back of Earl’s neck. He walked around and opened each door, cranked the windows down, checked the tires and made sure the windshield was clear. As they tucked the sheet around Chester, Earl felt his hands shaking and slapped the side of the door hard as he shut it. Luther helped him into the car and tuned the radio to an AM news station as they pulled away from the house. Static crackled from an approaching thunderstorm. Earl leaned forward and turned down the volume until it sounded like someone tearing up pieces of paper, as though they were unwrapping a gift with great care, wanting that moment of not knowing to last forever.

I was out walking my dog in the spring rain one afternoon in a small town called Mt. Vernon, Indiana. The dog, a collie mix, chased anything with a motor, so I had him on a short leash. We lived in a shotgun house, a cheap rental on the banks of the Ohio River. As we made our way to an open pasture, which was only a few blocks away, I heard a crash behind us. Turning around, I saw a car sticking out of the wall of my neighbor’s house. I ran back and asked the men in the car if they were hurt, to which they replied, “I believe that wall took the worst of it.” I never did find out how it happened, but I’ve been wondering about it for years, and the lives of those two men. The dog, by the way, stopped chasing cars and started sleeping in the basement.

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