Excerpt: The Life and Death of Eli and Jay

When Eli Hogan’s mother was six months pregnant with him, the small house on the Star Belt reserve was struck by lightning. Since this was on the rez, and no one had insurance, there was a lot of damage that no one could really fix. The bolt hit the TV antenna atop the torn roof, making the lights flicker inside the living room until they shattered. Copper wires melted into the carpets, leaving singe marks in their wake. Eli’s mother, Nadine, stood in the middle of the floor and shrieked until Eli’s dad Randy woke up from his nap in the back of his truck. Rain soaked through his thick shirt and puddles surrounded the truck. Randy hadn’t meant to be sleeping there, but he and Nadine had fought the night before, so instead of spending the night alone on the couch, Randy wanted to be closer to the stars. Even during a rainstorm, he was still convinced it was the best place to be.

Randy rescued Nadine from the shattered glass prison of the house, slipping her over his shoulders and bringing her outside into the rain. Her bare feet hit the mud at the same time she felt Eli kick. And she knew that in spite of the house’s damage, and the alcohol on Randy’s breath, that a shitty government house on the rez was nothing important. Nothing to cry about. The storm had been a sign—a lightning strike of revelation—that her son would grow up and be a strong man, one that could not be contained by four walls and a roof. He was going to go off and be something good.

At least, this was how Eli’s grandmother Tantoo told him the story of his birth. Months after the rainstorm that destroyed the house, Nadine gave birth inside Tantoo’s trailer while Randy and a few other community leaders repaired their house. They got rid of the TV antenna, replaced some electrical lines, and reinforced the roof—but they left the carpet intact. Carpet was too expensive back in the ’80s, but keeping the singed lines also reminded everyone of Eli. Randy, in particular, had wanted his son to see what had happened that night he had been outside in his truck, among the stars and lightning bolts.

Years later, the summer Eli was five years old, Randy would be found in a ditch, too drunk to move and dead of hypothermia a week later.

“Always looking at the stars,” his grandmother—his mother’s mother—would say. “Always on his back. Randy was always looking at the damn stars as if he could keep them. As if he thought he had a right to the sky.”

Eli often wondered, though, if his father had really been watching out for thunderstorms. Ever since the first one had snuck up on him and ruined the house, Randy seemed to stay up later and later into the night, always on watch. He drank more, too, but Eli never factored that into the image of his father. Everyone on the rez drank in some form or another. Randy had been a big, hulking man—over six feet tall and with a belly that cast a shadow over his feet. He could handle drinking as much as he did, because he was a mountain that couldn’t be moved. Even when they found him in the ditch from drinking too much, they needed four men to lift him into the ambulance and then an additional two at the hospital to carry him in.

The night his father died, it stormed again. Eli had been watching from the front window, his hands over the singed carpet. Every time someone wasn’t looking out, the storms came.

Soon after his father’s death, his mother grew weary of rez life. She dropped Eli off at Tantoo’s one morning and didn’t come back. Eli watched through Tantoo’s window for days until an elder brought a postcard to Tantoo’s door that said she was now living in the States with a new boyfriend. Tantoo became Eli’s only parent.

And that night, again, there was another storm. Alone in his bed, with Tantoo snoring in the next room, Eli felt fear about the storms for the first time. The roll of thunder made his heart beat faster, as if it could race with the wind and the sonic booms. He heard the rain against the pipes and Tantoo’s TV antenna sway. He imaged the house being struck again and again—no matter how much Tantoo told him that lightning never hit the same place twice. The storms were something to be feared. They were Eli’s legacy, but they were also his curse.

He and Tantoo moved into his family’s old house. As she shifted the furniture around, Eli saw the biggest singe mark of them all. Copper wires from the lamp cord had melted into the ground, straight down the centre of the house, and stopped where the old TV used to be. Eli placed both feet on either side of that divide and shook his head. The storm had split the house in two; it had made his parents take sides when they fought, and the split prevented Eli from having brothers and sisters on the rez, when everyone had brothers and sisters, or cousins that they called brothers and sisters. The fear of lightning and thunder, combined with Eli’s hatred of his origins. Eventually, Eli got his grandmother to cover up the line again with a couch.

“You know, Eli,” Tantoo said their first night together in the house, with her art on the wall now. “It’s better this way—with just you and me. It’s better you don’t have a million people running around and telling you a bunch of crazy stories.”

“You tell me stories, Grandma.”

“I do, but mine aren’t crazy. Mine are true.” Tantoo smiled, a small wink in her eyes. She flung her long, gray braids over her shoulders, as if to push away the past. “Now. No more stories for tonight. I think I’ve talked enough.”

She picked up her sewing from her bag. There were some things for Eli, like darning his socks, but other patchworks were for the marketplace in town. Tantoo would often sell her quilts at a marked-up price at the local farmer’s market in order to get by on the rez. As she sewed, Eli would often sit on the couch with her and wonder which side of the divide in the house he fell onto.

For a long time, this was it: Tantoo would tell the stories of Eli’s birth, the family Eli didn’t see anymore, and then when she grew tired of nostalgia, Tantoo tried to stitch the future. That was why she liked needlework and quilts, she’d always tell Eli.

“You pull threads together and you have a stake in the future. Every single one of us can trace our roots back to the source, the first stitch, but there are only a few of us who can go forward and add stitch over stitch.” She held up a red patch with a pattern of a house on it, smiled, and then glanced back at Eli. “But don’t get too lost, Eli. There are bigger things out there for you. I know that to be true.”

Eli shifted on the couch. With a concerned, heavy hand, she touched Eli’s dark hair and spoke in quick Siksika that even Eli didn’t understand fully.

“What?”

“Ask nicer.”

“What did you say, Grandma?”

She smiled softly. “Are you all right, Eli?”

Eli didn’t answer. After she tugged on his hair, he nodded.

“Good. Then speak up when the time is right.”

Eli moved from the couch to the window in front of the small house. He watched the cars pass by, ignoring the broken stop light, and the people going in and out of the general store. When a low hum of thunder occurred over the horizon, Eli drew quiet and stared at the sky. He hoped that he didn’t have to be like his father or mother, but someone completely new.

Buy the book!