Autumn in the Clockwork Forest

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"AUTUMN IN THE CLOCKWORK FOREST"
by Michael Scott Bricker
(c) 1996 Michael Scott Bricker
(Story first appeared in "Horrors! 365 Scary Stories")
Gears and sprockets fell from the trees, coating the ground in rusty autumn. Tin Man stopped, listened to the metallic beating from the Heart of the Forest, and knew that he was drawing near. His axe hung by his side, as always, and it, too, sensed the beating, and Tin Man felt dark curses flowing through the blood-streaked blade. He might have looked forward to his impending discovery, but such feelings were unique to those who possessed a heart, and Tin Man's axe had taken his long ago. It had been a gradual process, this conversion from flesh to tin, and if Tin Man had the capacity to hate, he would have cursed the Wicked Witch of the East with every grinding step, just as she had cursed that terrible axe of his.
She took shape from a cloud of greasy smoke, a dark, unclean blight floating within the autumn colors, (greened copper, tarnished brass, thin, curling leaves of tin), and she imitated his stiff, mechanical movements, then vanished as swiftly as she had appeared.
Tin Man acknowledged her presence, moved on, nothing more. There were advantages to having no heart, and he might have been grateful that the witch's form no longer caused him sorrow, that the chopping of his accursed axe no longer severed his flesh, that his missing human heart could no longer break from the loss of his beloved Munchkin girl, but gratitude was a feeling, an emotion, of which he had none. Tin Man thought of the Munchkin girl as he walked, and as his mechanical brain processed the old memories, he wondered why he had loved her so, and why the Wicked Witch of the East had been so angered by his feelings. She had cursed his axe, had caused it to lop off his limbs one by one, followed by his head, and last, it had removed his heart. A tinsmith had remade him, had hammered out his new identity late into the evenings, but his skill had not been limitless, and the construction of a tin heart had proven to be beyond his abilities. "A heart must be made of flesh," he would say, "only flesh can feel."
Tin man's quest had been a long one, a perilous journey through twisted woods and sleepy poppy fields and neglected roads of colored stones. His axe had served him well as the razored edge chopped through wires of dense metallic growth, and he wondered if the curse had passed, if the axe, in finding no remaining flesh to sever, had returned to its old utility. Tin Man emerged within a clearing, and there, set into a massive, spinning cogwheel, was the Heart of the Forest.
It was louder than a human heart, and colder as well, and Tin Man watched as silvery streams of molten metal flowed through its hollow, clicking chambers. The Wicked Witch of the East appeared again, but Tin Man ignored her, kept his attention fixed upon the beating Heart. He felt a hollowness in the riveted confines of his chest, an emptiness once filled by thoughts of his Munchkin girl, and he wondered if the heart would fit, if it would prove too large or too powerful for his crafted frame. Tin Man approached, looked at the Wicked Witch, into her dark, tormented eyes, then raised his axe, and brought it down with all his might.
The Heart of the Forest shattered, springs and gears popped off, flew into the air, and through a spray of molten metal, Tin Man watched the Wicked Witch of the East dissolve into a mercuric puddle. The lifeblood of the forest had taken her, but it had strengthened Tin Man, and he wondered if the Witch had truly been harmed. It would take more than a mechanical heart to destroy her, he reasoned. Nothing less than a human heart could do so, and a pure one at that, and Tin Man looked at his accursed axe and made a wish upon it.
As he left the Clockwork Forest, Tin Man wondered if he would ever have a human heart, and if he would ever love again. He doubted that his wish would come true, and he was well aware of the fact that he was only a man of tin, and as such, he possessed no power to make a successful wish, nor to remove a curse.
He was no Wizard, after all.
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