Because of him, the wind is breathing.
You could never tell just by looking at him. The old man stood with his back hunched over, his dark eyes squinted as he puttered between his magnolias.
“Pink magnolias for an old Ukrainian,” Mr. Tach used to say, and would let out a wheezing laugh as he rocked back and forth.
It was because of these magnolias that you could see the wind wrap and exhale around him. Wherever he would go, a light gust would follow, causing the petals from his trees to blush in the gust of rain around him.
The neighborhood kids would make fun of him, launching dirty words at him like small bombs. Tach was from Ukraine, although he claimed his ancestors emigrated from Moldova. He never seemed to mind it when the smaller kids would stare. He would simply sit back until his chest would be covered by the falling petals, only getting up when I would bring him the daily paper.
“Avi,” he said one day, as he reached from his rocking chair and took the paper from me.
“Yes,” I responded, pausing with my hand above the stair rail.
“Your mother said you were taking the entrance test soon.”
His accent was a little hard, with an emphasis on the r and the u, but I understood what he was saying under its slight burr.
“Yes sir,” I said. “I’ll be taking it next Saturday.”
He nodded. “You stop by tomorrow, I have books to give to help prepare. Very nice chrysanthemums your mother has though. Bright yellow, like a canary”
“Yes sir, thank you,” I said, and he let out another wheezing laugh while handing me a crisp ten-dollar bill.
“Sir,” he repeated, and took a magnolia bloom and held it close to his face.
I ran up the steps the next morning, holding a packet of testing materials and today’s paper in my left hand while my right hung freely beside me. My hand hit a pink bloom as I walked up the steps, and the soft magenta petals drifted onto the stair rails. Silver frost clung to their edges, and a spider web of ice wrapped around the magnolia branches above them. However, when I got to the rocking chair, I saw that it was empty.
“Mr. Tach?” I said, peering into the house. The door wasn’t shut; it hung open like a gaping mouth. I felt a small prickle of concern, my hands clenching above the flower petals. Tach was always outside, surrounded by the fragrant clumps of pink and purple even before the frost would melt from the grass.
I pushed open the door and stepped inside, the watery light illuminating the dark interior.
“Tach!” I shouted. Silence.
“Tach!” I shouted again, and banged open several doors. There was nothing, only an icy draft whistling between the rooms. Setting down the paper, I walked into the kitchen.
“Tach!” I said, and then all the air in my lungs escaping as I saw his pale figure, motionless, in the chair. My heart seemed to freeze in my chest. Grabbing the phone, I quickly dialed for an ambulance, frantically trying to feel for a pulse in his thin arm.
“Nine one one, what’s your emergency?” asked the operator.
“Heart attack,” I gasped. “My neighbor’s had a heart attack.”
It wasn’t long before the curtains flashed blue and red. As they carried Tach down the sidewalk, gently lifting the stretcher with his still body into the ambulance, several magnolia petals fluttered onto his chest, and I saw one drift onto his cheek before they closed the bright red doors of the vehicle.
The neighborhood was lonely without Tach.
The blushing petals piled outside his porch, and his windows became dark and dusty. I visited him in the hospital as soon as I could, bringing a clump of budding magnolia branches with me into his room.
He smiled as he saw me, his teeth pearly white against his wasted skin. Surrounded by the plastic tubes, there was not a single puff of wind. There was only the stale hospital air, the smell of disinfectant vaguely permeated by the sweet fragrance of the blooms I held.
“You brought me more flowers, like I asked,” he said, and his chest fluttered like a small bird. I felt a pang in my stomach.
“Yes sir,” I said, and he let out one of his wheezing laughs until it turned into a cough. It felt so wrong to see him surrounded by the white machinery; he looked frail and small without his foliage of pink and purple. However, when I handed him a flower, he picked a bloom off the tip of the branch and set it atop his forehead.
“Do you know who his family is?” a nurse asked, as she was tucked a white cloth around him and laid him on a wheeled stretcher to take him to the operation room. “He doesn’t seem to know.”
“His family is Magnolia,” I said honestly, which caused Tach to sputter and laugh while the nurse frowned and shifted in her heels.
“That’s not funny,” she snapped, which caused Tach to laugh even harder.
“Good luck in the surgery,” I told him, and he waggled a flower at me as he was being wheeled out of the room.
“You do well at test, and bring me more flowers,” he said, and then sat back in the stretcher and let the nurse push him.
“You did very nicely,” he said, as I brought him my test results. He set the paper on the bed. His eyes crinkled, and he took my hand in his and placed a small russet branch in my hand. A bandage stretched along his waist, and IV tubes poked into his skeletal figure. An oxygen mask was hooked to his face, though it sometimes slipped from his lips.
He weakly tapped my hand to get my attention from the tubes. “The nurse with the tall heels gave me this white magnolia branch. You take it and plant in your garden so I can visit when I die, yes?”
“You’re not going to die, Tach,” I said. His narrow eyes blinked slowly, and he patted my wrist.
“You were a good paperboy,” he muttered, and then shifted against the pillow, brushing a dried off magnolia petal from the bed. “I’ll miss your papers when I watch you from heaven.”
I could feel a light breeze at that moment, and I had to turn away and preoccupy myself with rearranging the flowers in the vase.
“The nurse said you still had a chance to make your heart better,” I mumbled, and he shook his head.
“My heart is like the magnolia tree in front of my house,” he said, “Old and tough, but slowly slipping away into the wind. You remember to plant that branch when I’m gone, you hear?”
I promised him I would.
The nurses in the room said that, when Tach died, all the flowers in his room seemed to wilt to a faded grey. His funeral was set a few days after his death, in the early morning before the sun had even risen. The casket was simple and black, but it had the emblem of a magnolia etched into the front.
After they lowered the casket into the Earth, I took a shovel and planted the small branch he had given me. The branches were wiry and tough between my fingers. As I pushed the roots into the hole, a small, pale petal fell into the hole.
I picked up the petal, and a gust of wind whipped my hair. “Here lies a man of the greatest soul of all. A Magnolia,” I said. The wind gave a gentle rustle in response, raking against my check and gently brushing my hair.
Bending down, I piled the dirt around the base of the branch and placed the petal on top. If I'm being honest, I cried a little as I piled up the soil. “A new magnolia for a wise old man,” I echoed. And I smiled even though I cried.
And though the wind had died down, and the casket was below the earth, I could still feel the breath of the breeze as it tumbled through the skinny branch rustling beside his grave. For the next thirty years that I visited, the branch's buds would only flourish and bloom brighter.