The End of Tin

By Bill Kte'pi

When Nick Chopper was a boy and not yet tin, they used to say every mirror was haunted. It's why the wights wouldn't look in them; it's why if you broke one there was hell to pay by seven sundowns, and if you didn't pay hell would come to collect. Mirrors soaked up a little bit of you every time you passed one by. No matter what the superstitious might tell you 'bout the matter, you didn't lose anything by it—no more than you lost some part of you when you left a room, trailing your muddy footprints on the carpet, things that were yours but you couldn't miss. No more than an echo would strain your voice beyond what the shouting already did.

But every day, every time, you left that little bit. And so did he. And so did she. And so did they all, alleluia amen. Didn't matter what happened to you at that point. You could die midshout and your echo would outlive you. A queer thought but truesome and those superstitious people they had a few fireside tales about such a thing, the story of the boy who lost his shadow and so never grew up, the story of the girl who fell in love with the ripples of the river where she bathed. But the only story they told of girls who fell into a mirror and disappeared forever, that was the story about Maryann, Nick's love lost when he was not yet tin.

When the war came and the end of days unfolded, Nick ceded his kingship over the Winkies to Jellia Jamb. Neither she nor they acknowledged his right to do so, and the kingdom followed her leadership only out of respect for his wishes—as she led only because he'd told her to. She wasn't a native, but neither was he, and neither had the Wizard been when he ruled the Emerald City, or the Princess before him. It was a strange land, a strange world, that so welcomed strangers as its leaders. Maybe that contributed to its downfall, maybe when the Scissormen came barking "Ys en dof da!" a true king battleborn and weaned of local soil could have staved them off. Maybe Button Bright and the Thumbsucker Boys wouldn't have fallen to their sniping heron-beaks. The Hatters would have said this was foolish, o' course, even blasphemous if they'd invented that notion yet—the war came because the end was here and it was all unraveling, as the world next door beyond the wastes and reflections was ending too.

But Nick didn't care. It comforted him how much he didn't care. He had no responsibilities. He had no today-I-shoulds. He lounged in his esquivalience and went about his day. Tin didn't sleep, so all night he sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor of the manse, looking into the mirror. He left one lamp flickering behind him, something to cast enough light for reflections. Maryann was in there or beyond it, somewhere. She'd gotten lost in the days just before the overthrow of Queen Zixi the Red, while Nick was still frozen with rust in the Sjumilaskogen Forest. Oh, they hadn't been lovers in years, not since he'd lost the capacity. But he'd still held out hope, hope that diminished inch by inch as he sat paralyzed but fully awake and unsleeping in the woods. He only heard about her disappearance years later when the Wizard's rule ended much as the Queen's had, how her little sister had come into the room just as Maryann dissolved away, and when he heard he used his might as ruler of this new land to have the mirror brought to him. Odd Bodkin and The Plush Puppy retrieved it from the cache of an autistic giant who was afraid of fire and the dark and had stolen all the mirrors in a vain attempt to store up starlight.

He watched the mirror all night, for signs of Maryann at the other end of the looking-glass.

When dawn cast its breeze through the curtains, smelling like fresh grass and sounding like robins, he got up to make breakfast. His footsteps were hollow and intrusive on the hardwood floors but he brushed off suggestions to carpet the manse in order to accommodate. The stone floor of the kitchen would have felt cold on his own feet, his old feet. Against cool metal, it was nothing but the source of that grating rock-on-metal sound, and that he hated, that he really did hate, but he had never felt it his place to redo the kitchen. He was a guest in this land of the Winkies, no longer even its king.

He chopped a potato from the garden into imperfect cubes—when they were too square, he felt unhappy with the meal, felt it looked machine-processed, and so sometimes intentionally roughed the edges ragged—and fried them in the drippings of sizzling fatback with some chives and ground paprika. When a knob of canary-yellow butter had melted in the battered old pan, he fried two eggs from Gemma Goose, watching the white protein congeal to opacity. The spatula slid under it with a satisfying lack of resistance, and he flipped each egg deftly, shook the pan of potatoes onto a cool white china plate and stabbed the strips of fatback with a fork in order to fish them out from the orangey-grease and place them atop the small mound. That was all the time it took for the egg yolks to be cooked sufficient, and he slid the spatula under them and removed each egg to the potato mound, careful not to puncture the yolk just yet. A sprinkle of cheese, the last left in the kingdom, began to melt over the heat of the eggs but gently enough that it would not become stringy or break off in grease.

It remained only to smear an oven-warmed biscuit with clotted cream and strawberry preserves left from the Red Queen's reign, and to dust the plate with flakes of salt harvested from the Vast Waste that had once separated This from That but was now only the Thisthmus. The borders between things were not what they had been once, when an errant wind had brought him to this land from the one of his birth, orphaning him in fact if not in name.

He poured cold milk from a clay jug into a chilled glass tumbler, and stood back for a moment to admire his work. Perhaps a stroopwaffel wet with syrup. Perhaps warm slices of apple and quince, crackling with sugar. No, this would be fine today. He couldn't smell any of it, but he remembered. With every year, his kitchen became more old-fashioned, as he didn't stock anything he didn't remember the taste, feel, smell of.

Nick rang the dinner bell, and the Frogman came in from his quarters. The Frogman had been serving as the manse's majordomo since the Battle of the Yip Plateau. It was really just something he could do, to justify Nick giving him a place to live. He didn't need servants. Tin didn't bathe, tin didn't get tired.

And tin didn't eat. The Frogman, saying nothing but giving a brief friendly nod because he knew Nick liked him to do this in silence, sat a table and speared the eggs with his long-handled fork, letting the yolk run out onto the potatoes and fatback. He ate them bite by bite, interspersed with sips of milk and bites of biscuit, and Nick, Nick watched him do it, while taking a rag sprinkled with metal cleaner and wiping himself down, to clean off the grease that had spattered from cooking.

"If I had a heart," Nick said eventually, cautiously, "I could get over her. All that is can break. All that breaks can heal." He hadn't always thought that last was true, but in this land where men replaced themselves with tin, where straw stuffed in burlap could rule as pincushion king, he saw no reason to doubt it. All that breaks can and will heal.

The Frogman tilted his head to one side, paused, canted his head back to its original position, and nodded. After breakfast, Nick returned to his room and the mirror. It was a dressing mirror, about five feet high and oval in shape, in a gilt frame that allowed it to be angled this way or that. There was nothing on the other side except the wood, brass, and gold that composed the frame. He had, with the narrowest corner of the axe the Burzee had made for him to commemorate their treaty with the Winkies, chipped a small piece of the mirror away. You could barely notice its absence, a twinkle missing from the corner. There appeared to be nothing of interest behind the glass, only the ordinary silver back.

Nick sat in front of the mirror all that night, and the night next, and the one after that, for threescore nights. He spent most of his days there too, and from time to time Jellia Jamb would send visitors to him when she wanted his advice. She had asked him, if he must step down, if he would at least consent to be her consort. He truly did not remember what he had said in response. If he had a heart, he would remember.

The Princes of Mo came to tell him that the Narch's Palace had fallen to the Scissormen, who had ranged across all of Oz by now and crossed the thinning wastes. The Princes bore limbs of wood, built for them by their woodchopper to replace the ones severed by the Scissormen. Nick mused on this for a while, and listened to them tell him the story of how he had once been a man of flesh, but when a witch enchanted him for falling in love with her daughter Maryann, he had by means of the curse bit by bit chopped off all of his limbs and even his own head, replacing them each in turn with replacements made of tin—until nothing remained but tin, nothing but squeak and rumble.

What they didn't tell him because they didn't know was that when he'd met Maryann, lost in the woods in her red cape standing out like a poppy amidst a dead meadow, the first thing he'd said to her was, "I bet you a nickel I don't fall in love with you." They didn't tell him because they didn't know that the next time he saw her was when he rescued her from one of the dire wolves that prowled the woods, freeing her from its maw by splitting it in half with his axe, which in those days was humble and mundane—that when her witchmother's mirror had shown Maryann's reflection instead, it was Nick whose kiss had resurrected her from the sleep of snow and glass—that her mouth was as sweet and mysterious as smoke from a gingerbread chimney. They didn't tell him because they didn't know that he'd lost his heart long before he was tin, which was why the Wizard's replacement wasn't enough to restore him.

The triplet daughters of Sinterklaas came to tell him that winter had fallen and with it the final snows. Those last flakes would drift from the Far Off Mountains into the worlds of man, caught by gusts and gathered by clouds until eventually settling on the rooftops and frosting the evergreens of the daughters of Eve and the sons of Adam. There would be no more winters after that. There would be no more Christmases. The Frogman asked Nick if this Christ-Maas had anything to do with the Jesus Christ he had tried to explain once—who the people of Winkie Country thought must be something like the Shaggy Man.

"I don't know," Nick said. "I just don't know anymore." He pointed through the mirror, at a land which was a reflection of their own but not exactly the same, no more than your sinister is quite so shapely or quite so adept as your dexter. It was a widdershins world beyond that glass, beneath the silver. "Look on the bedside table there."

He waited, because if you only glanced at the mirror you would too clearly see what you expected: your own surroundings, reversed. Keeping your eyes affixed on the glass would reveal the deeper differences, such as in this case the green-glass bottle of Coca-Cola on the bedside table. Nick explained Santa Claus and Coca-Cola and greeting cards and pale blue wrapping paper embossed with scratchy silver snowflakes, and all manner of such things as the Frogman had never experienced, and the Frogman clapped in delight at the wonder of it all.

"I still don't know whether any of this has anything to do with that Jesus Christ," the Frogman pointed out.

"I don't think anyone does," Nick said. Harder to explain than Jesus Christ had been why he'd used the name as an expletive, a verbal tic that was unusual here. "But maybe more importantly, one of the things my land takes as a sign of the world's end is the return of Jesus from the dead—" It would have been bothersome if they didn't know what dead, death, dying were. What was worse somehow was that they did, even though the words referred to things that rarely happened except to witches destroyed by water, patchwork giants unraveled by the Murderous Crows. They knew what kill meant, these undying people.

"And if they celebrate his birth while he's dead, maybe when he returns they won't need to," the Frogman said.

Nick nodded, and then jerked so violently that his metal limbs clattered against the floor. "Henry," he said. "Quickly. Look in the reflection of the doorway. What do you see?"

The Frogman frowned and leaned forward, his eyes large and alien upon his green head. "A man standing in the room across the hallway—he's holding something, perhaps a drink—"

"His arm, Henry, is there anything upon his arm?"

"Ah, yes. It's hard to make out, but a tattoo of some kind perhaps, a stylized red heart with an arrow through it—"

"Yes," Nick said, and stared as the man walked somewhere unvisible, leaving the reflection. The Frogman continued speaking, but Nick didn't pay attention. Soon a hand was briefly evident before shutting the door to the room where the mirror was. Nick stood up, reflexively dusting himself off and causing his tin hands to scrape against his tin legs. "Get down on your hands and knees, Henry. Like a horse."

"What? Nick, my friend—"

Nick walked to the furthest part of the hallway, and grabbed one of the oilcans there, oiling each of his joints. He was methodical about it and did not rush. It wouldn't pay to. "I can't run into the mirror. I've tried, and my fear of breaking it and losing this connection to Maryann always brings me up short. But maybe I can fall into it—maybe if I cannot stop myself, the mirror will not do so either."

The Frogman put his hands and knees on the floor, and held his back straight. "I still do not understand—"

"That," Nick said, as he took a running start and rushed towards the Frogman and the looking-glass, "was my arm."

When he reached the Frogman, he planted a foot on his back and leapt into the air, hoping he gauged the distance correctly. Arms flailing around him, he soared through the air and inevitably back down, with the mirror in his path. His feet hit it first, though he drew one back out of that instinctual fear of breaking it—and feet-first, followed by his legs, waist, torso, and at last his head and flailing arms, he passed through the mirror. Glass broke and tinkled, and he feared he had not succeeded until he turned around, and saw not the Frogman on the ground but the bottle of Coca-Cola on the bedside table.


He wondered if he would have recognized the smell of the place across the mirror, if he could still smell. He wondered how much of that he had forgotten, the way the smell of your grandmother's house in the woods can vanish into the corners of memory until some chance whiff recalls it to you. He wondered if his own scent were here, the smell of his body, the smell of his arm—and whether it would smell different when it wasn't in his possession, wasn't the product of his own actions.

I just don't know anymore, Frogman.

He stashed the oil can in his chest cavity where the fabric heart that the Wizard had given him hung from a small brass hook he'd affixed for the purpose. Also in his chest cavity were stored the spectacles he wore when visiting the Emerald City, and the broken buckle from one of Miss Gale's slippers. He saw no reason why either would be necessary. Behind him, the looking glass on this side was as broken as the one he had passed through—if they were even two different mirrors, a distinction he wasn't certain of. There might be no going back. There might be nothing to go back to.

Nick Chopper was not a subtle man. Subtlety was for straw, lions, girls. Nick Chopper carried an axe.

He kicked the door down not to be dramatic but because he had both hands on the axe, and stalked the hallway. Though the room he had left was largely similar to the one in his manse, the rest of the house did not seem to be. It was more modern, more like the land he remembered. He had little doubt the looking glass had led him to the land of his birth—which meant it had sent Maryann there as well, and confirmed his long suspicion that the blonde Alice had come from the same place he and Dorothy and the Wizard had, when the world was a little simpler.

"Hello?" he called. "Hello, who's home?"

Footsteps answered him, on creaking wood. He had surprised someone. They were cautious. He could feel the vibrato of their movements carrying across the floor and up his hollow legs, could feel the weight of them leaning against the wood. A radio played in the next room which was silver and black with inconstant sunlight, or a—what had it been called? A Victroller, a grampaphone. Nick faintly remembered them, playing far-off music through a fluted brass ear-trumpet in his early childhood. "More disappearances," the grampaphone voice said, and there was no music, "sweep the country, and Europe is already a no man's land. Church authorities refuse to comment on the widespread belief that the Rapture preceding the end of the world has occurred or is occurring, but it is easy to understand where the believers are coming from. For the third day in a row the night sky has been pitch—well—pitch red, ladies and gentlemen, plain as the nose on your face and with no apparent connection to the war. We ask you just sit tight, and we'll get through this best we can. We'll have more from the Philadelphia Symphony soon, but have you or the man of the house tried Burma-Shave? Oh, you've seen the billboards, but have you experienced the thrill of a clean, smooth shave? Men, you know the ladies prefer it. If your peach—keeps out of reach—better practice—what we preach—Burma-Shave!"

Nick walked towards the sound of the radio—it had to be a radio if he remembered right, the radio was the one that talked to you and all the grampaphone could do was play back music you'd heard before—and just barely brought his axe up in time to fend off a blow from a baseball bat, as the man from the mirror leapt at him from around the corner. The bat splintered and cracked like a bone, and the man's face went pale with shock behind its mustaches and bushy eyebrows.

Other than his face, he was the spitting image of Nick when he was not yet tin: which is to say, his arms were the same, his build, the body—things Nick could put no name to, could point out no distinguishing feature of save for the tattoo, but which he instantly and wrenchingly recognized as his own, as a cold shudder repaired to the emptiness beneath his metal shell. "You," he murmured.

"You!" the man said. "The tin man!"

"What?" a voice called from beyond the corner. "Hick, what—"

It was Maryann. Oh, her voice was a shade deeper, just a shade, and bore a timbre of lethargy he could not name, but Nick would know it anywhere. "Nick!" he called out, feeling hot though he couldn't have, delirious though he knew he wasn't. "Maryann, it's Nick!"

She didn't reply, and the man brought his shattered bat down again, though Nick—who had fought flying monkeys, Scissormen, and pirates a-plenty—easily parried it. "That's my body," he told the man. "That's my body and I want to know where you found it."

"Oh," the man said. "Oh my God. It is you."

Maryann joined them, haggard and smudged and badly dressed in nightclothes. She had aged impossibly. Her hair was cut like a boy's and she smoked a cigarette and her cheeks were too rouged, her eyelids too blue with last night's makeup. "Nick?" she asked, eyes wide, voice hoarse. "Oh God, Nick?"

The truth came out in tangled whispers and hang-on-a-minute-let-me-explains. The man's name was Hickory Twicker, nephew to the tinsmith who'd repaired Nick. He'd been a soldier in the Quadling Range Wars, one whose every injury, every loss, was treated by means of affixing to his body one of Nick's old discarded flesh parts, until he had taken on everything but the head. "Everything else?" Nick asked in a fast whisper. "Everything else?"

Maryann blushed, and Nick took three sawdust beats to understand why. He'd meant to ask about his heart, not—oh my God.

"But how," Nick asked. "How did you come to be here? How did you come to be together?"

"Hurricane took me up," Hickory said. "You know how those things are. Dropped me in Texas some years ago, and at some point, well, Maryann and me ran into each other—she recognized me, don't ask me how, ain't like it's your face I'm wearin,' that's all mine, all-natural genuine Twicker. We talked about home. You know how it is. Foreigners find each other. We'd have a ghetto if there were enough of us. Little Emerald City. Oztown."

Maryann put an arm around Hick's waist, and Nick was sure that above that waist, deep in that chest with no spectacles, no oil can or slipper buckle, his own heart must have sunk. I miss caring about this, he thought. Truly caring, feeling it deep and sharp, I miss the hurt this would give me. I miss the realness of it. He stroked the handle of the Burzee axe. They were sitting at the table, which was littered with cigarette ash. Cold burnt coffee sat in mugs alongside a bottle of Kentucky bourbon, and the adjoining sitting room smelled of something Nick remembered from adventures past, which Hickory identified for him as opium, the Chinaman's smoke.

"It's a bad time, Nick," Maryann said, and then expanded. "I mean, not for a, for a visit, I mean—for the world, it's no good out there. This world's used itself up. But—however you got here—maybe, maybe you could take us back—"

So he told them.

He relished telling them.

He told them of the Scissormen clipping away at the edges of the lands of Oz and Mo and Ix and Re, of the Thumbsucker Boys losing their thumbs to those slish-slash beaks, the Cowardly Lion's last stand against the furies of Jack Frost and the assembled creatures of the forest who could not forgive his soft heart, the Scarecrow being spun into gold. And your own mother, Maryann, your own witchmother enchanting Princess Ozma to fall into a deep sleep where in her dreams the Sandmen could enslave her, torment her in ways that a man dare not contemplate and that tin could not comprehend. He told them of the cults of the Hatter who prescribed the morals that would save them all from the nearing end and the Rabbit who said it was too late, and how Hattersmen and Rabbitsmen warred on each other, tearing apart Munchkin Country and setting upon Yellow Road travelers suspected of sympathizing with one side or the other. Winkie Country was solidly Hattersmen territory, not out of any preference Nick had but because of treaties Jellia Jamb had signed.

"Jellia?" Maryann asked with a curious tone in her voice. "Is she your—your—"

"Successor," Nick said. "I possessed and then abdicated a throne. I have gone far from my days as a simple woodcutter, Maryann. I have prospered."

She looked strangely relieved, and Hickory after a moment stood up—standing between the chairs of Nick and Maryann—to offer Nick a drink, a breakfast, a can-I-get-you-anything. It was not a well-kept kitchen. It had not seen many good breakfasts made, Nick suspected. And he could not help noticing that Maryann was, well—

"You look worn out," Nick said, realizing that it was heartless. He was only curious, though. "You look so little like the girl I remember, the girl I loved."

Maryann looked uncomfortable, and Hickory squeezed her arm with his/Nick's hand. "Nick, I don't think—I don't really think I want to talk about all that. I forgave you a long time ago. You're better now, aren't you? Hickory told me—told me about the things you'd done, helping to overthrow the Wizard and the Witch in the West—"

"Forgave me?" Nick asked.

Forgave me?

For loving you even when I had no heart with which to do so? For the months I spent, rusted in the forest, months when you did not even look for me? I cannot sleep. I cannot dream. I could do nothing but think and dwell and exist. Without a heart, I could not even feel, could not even revel in my love for you.

Maryann rubbed her grimy chin with her grubby hand. Wrinkles were at the corners of her eyes. She was the oldest woman Nick had ever seen who wasn't old. She was in that strange middle between Miss Gale and the Witches, that middle never seen in Oz, an undying land of children and ancients. "Nick, I—it took me a long time to get over it, to get over all those, those times, those things, those things you made me do—"

"Made you do?" When you made me fall in love with you? When we promised ourselves to each other? I bet you a nickel.

"Nick, I was a girl."

"Of course you were! They're all girls in Oz, all but the Witches, the Queens."

"For Christ's sake," Hickory said, which reminded Nick that he should tell them about Christmas and the Sinterklaas. "She was a child, Chopper! She was only thirteen years old! The things you did—I tell you, it makes me sick sometimes, thinking about the fact that I'm stuck with your body now—"

"That could be fixed," Nick said.

"Look pal—"

Nick cut him off, beginning with the wrists.

The Burzee axe came down hard, severing Hickory Twicker's dexter hand, the one that had so insolently pointed its finger at Nick. Nick brought the axe back up again—he would reclaim his body, piece by piece, he would give Hickory his tin and everyone would live happily ever after, Hickory could be the one to give up his heart—but stopped when he saw how much the man was bleeding. The blood didn't just flow, it gushed, it spouted, like the fire of a sputtering torch. The table and floor were sticky with it, and the screams rattled against Nick's tin skull.

"Stop," he murmured. "Stop that, stop screaming! Stop making such a fuss!" And he brought the axe down again. He missed, so disconcerted was he that he missed, his feet slipping easily on the bloodslicked floor, and before he could strike a third time, Maryann stopped him by moving between him and Hickory. The quarters were close enough that her feet stumbled against his and her warm skin pressed against cold cold tin.

"Nick, stop!" she screamed. "Stop, what are you doing!"

"He—" Nick said, pointing at the man who'd stolen his body, his girl, and all the rights attached. "Damn it, Maryann!"

"This isn't Oz, Nick. If you cut him, you can't put him back together. He'll die." She spoke so calmly that he knew she must be in hysterics.

"Oh my God," he said. "Oh my God. Maryann. Maryann, I didn't—I just wanted to trade, I wanted to give him the tin, I wanted the body, I just wanted my own body back, my heart—"

"Help me bandage him up," she said. Hick had gone half-dumb from the shock and pain, and she tourniquetted his wound. "We need—"

A siren sounded somewhere, a sound Nick barely remembered from days of fire brigades. It was followed immediately by a great whoosh and explosions, not far away but not close enough to shake the windows. "What was that?"

"The war," she said, with a resigned sigh. She was so—she was so uninnocent now. So much of the world, of this world. Base. Vulgar. Dirty. "We better go see how bad it is. Hick, come on honey."

The three of them left the house, and outside was—it was a terror. Black smoke curled in long tendrils down the street. Feral dogs ran down alleyways carrying still-wet bones too large not to be human. Things that might be people crawled in the shadows, naked and copulating and soiling themselves in the open. In the distance, buildings shook with the force of bombs he couldn't see from here. "A hospital," he said. "He'll need a hospital. That is still what they call them? They have not found something better?"

"Yes," she said.

"Do you drink Coca-Cola, Maryann?"

She gave him a searching look. "I can't stand it," she said. "It's too sweet. Sweets remind me—well—they remind me of being young, Nick. When it didn't take much to get my favor."

"I see. Yes." Nick glanced at Hickory, who groaned. The shock was going to wear off soon. Snowflakes began to drift, mistaken for ash at first.

Maryann took his look as an extension to his question. "Oh, Hick loves the stuff. Can't get enough. Nothing better than a cold Coca-Cola in a glass bottle, he always says, especially—"

"— with a cheeseburger and some well-salted French fries," Nick finished for her, softly.

"That's not how he puts it, but yeah—yes. Nick. Oh, it's your body. And you're from here. Does he like Coca-Cola because he's tasting with your mouth?" She gave him another searching look. "The things that body does. . . Oh Nick, it's snowing!" For a second he thought she'd seen the reflection of the storm on the surface of his tin body, but it was the snowflakes she was looking at, the snowflakes as they settled on him. She clapped her hands together just as she had done when she was . . . young. "It's snowing, my God, maybe it's all going to be okay after all. Just one more Christmas miracle, right? World's seen worse than this. Remember when the Red Queen took over?"

It isn't going to see worse than this, Maryann. Not twice, anyway. That's the last snowfall. Behind those winds there's nothing. It's the last breath of the world, the last snow anyone will ever see and the last Christmas is its own miracle. Oz must be gone by now, or left in ruins. The rest will follow.

But he didn't tell her any of that.

He picked Hickory Twicker up in his arms, and peered at the ruined streets. "Which direction is the hospital?" he asked. She pointed hesitantly. "Thank you, Maryann."

"Nick, wait—you can't go out there, not until the bombing—"

"It can't wait," he said. "I should not have hurt him. Tin can't be hurt, Maryann. I'll be fine."

"But the snow—won't you rust? Won't you—"

"I'll just have to be faster than the rust. Reach into my chest. There's a clasp—reach behind him—yes. There. Take it off its hook. Take it. Keep it."

"Nick, I—"

"Shhhh." Oh, he hated that, hated the sound his tin mouth made in a whisper, the sound of wind through a soup can. "Everything's going to be okay. Everything's going to be just fine."

He didn't wait for her to say anything else, just left her on her front step with his cloth heart in her hands as snowflakes dampened it. The streets were wild and dangerous, but he would move too quickly to have time to run into trouble. One last adventure, right Hickory? One last wild quest.

"It's okay, Hickory," he told the body in his arms as his tin feet clopped down the stone streets through the devastation, and the heavy snows whirled around him. "It's okay. Everything that is breaks. Everything that breaks heals. Maybe we'll find a wizard. Maybe he'll give you a cloth hand to replace your old one. Maybe a straw hand you can stuff and restuff and scatter to the wind to clutch the sky."

One snowflake after another, each unique and the last of its kind, landed on him as he crossed the city. On a man, they would have melted. On him, that icewater would have threatened to bring him to rust. But tin didn't warm snow the way men did. On tin, the snow just landed and remained perfect, cold, pristine. One snowflake after another, each the last of its kind.


Bill Kte'pi is a full-time writer currently expatriated in New England, where there is too much snow and nobody throws anything at the parades. Links to some of his other work, and the usual miscellanea, can be found at http://www.ktepi.com. See our archives for Bill Kte'pi's previous appearances in Strange Horizons. To contact him, send mail to icaneatglass@gmail.com.