Eric Pilot’s belief in magic started as a little boy with the word buttermilk. Not something normally associated with anything mystical, but that word taught him a lesson about life and about love too. Death, he learned, was like a magic trick, even if it is a secret that only the magician and his assistant understand. The great magician Harry Houdini once said that magic was never a mystery to him; it came naturally, simply, as if he had done it all before, a past life maybe. Death – it was no different, just a simple sleight of hand trick. For some people it was like that. Eric was one of those people.
His mind was sharp as lightning, and he could spot a ruse like a detective on a case. As the passenger train rumbled through the Ozark Mountains in the early morning, Eric shuffled a deck of cards and admired the leaves turning red, yellow, and orange. He thought it was like magic – one minute brand new and green, the next amber and wilted, but still vibrant, beautiful. His parents and grandparents were orange leaves. Some day they would be green again. He believed this completely. Death, remember, a simple illusion.
His understanding of magic started on the day of his grandfather’s funeral many years ago. Grandma Pilot had found Eric on her bed, tearing a thread from the quilt she had been perpetually knitting for him since his birth. The seven-year-old had resolved himself not to go to the funeral. Out of protest, you see, because Grandpa Pilot had lied. He had promised not to die. Yet he was dead. Feeling like a lost deck of playing cards stuck deep in the back of a drawer, Eric had sat on his grandparents’ bed with no tears but with a flicker of rage in his eyes. If a tear had slipped out, no doubt it would have felt like melting wax. Outside it had been a cold winter, as it always was in Fairbanks, Alaska on his grandparents’ ranch. Eric had looked at the trees, sickly sticks for branches, weighing heavy with ice, a blanket of snow as far as he could see. To him, it did not look like a fluffy, puffy playground to build a snowman. It just looked cold. Barren. Endless. Leading nowhere. Grandma Pilot, a sturdy but stick-thin woman with long gray hair in a ponytail, had leaned in the doorway watching him pull at that piece of thread from the blanket. It had various patches, mostly shades of green, but the one of a biplane to represent his last name was his favorite.
“You’re going to pull that thread until you have a pile of loose yarn. You want that to happen?” she had said on that icy day, taking a seat beside him, patting his head.
“Grandpa lied.” The words in his mouth were sticky, oozing like hot tar.
“He didn’t lie, Eri,” she had said, calling him by his nickname. For a long while, the kids at his new school thought his name was Harry since “Eri” sounded that way. “Come spring, those trees will have green leaves again,” she had told him, pointing at the trees outside. “Remember what we talked about after your parents died?” Eric had looked into his grandmother’s eyes, eyes of blue, not a cold blue like the way the sky looked on that freezing winter Alaskan day, but a soft blue like a baby’s blanket, a crystal clear stream to carry away sorrow (and he had hoped it would not burden her, weigh her down with pain). Trusting, the rage within him subsided to a faint glimmer. She had gotten very close to him, whispered in his ear, “I’m going to tell you a secret, one that your grandfather and I share, and you’ll know Grandpa Pilot did not lie.”
What she had told Eric that day could be regarded by some as an old woman’s silly wishful thinking, and what happened later as a mere coincidence, but it was the match that lit a different type of fire in young Eric that stayed with him forever. Not only did Eric lose his fear of death, but he gained a longing that was hard for a young child to grasp. On that day, his grandmother swore that Eric’s eyes changed from pale brown to black as coal. His eyes became an endless night sky searching for a sun to light it, an eternal flame.
As a thirty-three-year-old man that same fire burned within him. It burned so hot, the believers say, that a strange flicker emanated from his gaze. Eric looked through the steam mist rising from the bottom of the train. Dawn. The sun looked like a great fire in the distance, warming the day, but a dark cloud hovered near it, promising rain up ahead. The cloud appeared endless but Eric could see the blue sky beyond it. A sun-fueled day. That was Eric’s destination.