The Boy Stands Up
By BJ Becker
(Circa 453 AF)
In the far north of Hiyama, in the foothills of the great northern mountain, they say that the earth turns to iron every winter, and that the local people were bound to become iron workers because if it. And indeed, it is in the villages of Li Po, Kurigata and Nigawa that you find the greatest smiths in the whole of Pentar. The valleys are layered with ore of every type, and the armies of the Warring Nations are all equipped with swords and spears forged in the workshops of the smiths of Han Shan. It is as well that this is so, for the men (and women) of Han Shan are always the first to feel the attacks of their neighbors, the wild men of the Norrmark.
Not all of the families of that region are sword smiths, though, and in one village in particular, there lived a poor woman named Luna with her second son, Nishiro. Her husband had been killed in a raid when the two boys were but children, and she had sent her eldest to the capital to train with a noted blade maker, but had no money to pay for Nishiro’s indentures. He had to be content to learn the craft of tin-smithing, and eked out a living repairing pans and pots, and making copper lamp stands, but what he liked best was making small toys, birds and animals, out of tin for the children of the village.
While the other houses in the village had their forges attached, where at all seasons might be seen the blaze of the hearth and the ring of hammer on anvil might be heard, Nishiro would sit on the front porch of his little thatched house and tap away on his pots and pans: tap-tap-tap-tip.
Now it happened that in the square, just in front of the little thatched house where Nishiro and his mother lived, was the village well, and to that well would come every morning Sun, the youngest daughter of the Nagata family, the premier sword-smiths in the village. Her father was a proud man, and wealthy, and liked to put it about that his great grandmother (on his mother’s side) had been the youngest daughter of the Daimyo’s second brother, which made them practically royalty in the village. In any case, the likes of Nishiro, who was only a tapper of tin, were beneath his notice.
Not so his daughter, Sun, however. She would come to the well each morning, rain or shine, summer and winter, to fetch the water for the day. And she would pause and put the copper water carrier on the step by the well, and she would look across the square to where Nishiro sat tap-tap-tap-tipping on his tin. And she would nod at this quiet boy, and he would nod back, his head bent over his tin pot.
And one day, the girl smiled. And the boy bowed and smiled and went on tap-tap-tipping on his tin pot, and the smile stayed there all day. And over the course of the year, they would smile at each other, every morning, and Nishiro began each day with the expectation of that smile, and Sun came earlier and stayed longer over fetching the water home. And as was bound to happen, one day Sun’s copper water-carrier sprang a leak and Nishiro fixed it. And after that there was no other course for them, but to fall in love.
But no matter how many people gather at the well and no matter how heavy the water carrier is, there is only so much time you can spend, getting the water. And after a while, Sun’s mother became suspicious, and sent her second son to spy on his sister.
Now this brother was taller than Nishiro, and wider (though not much of that was due to muscle) and he was a smith of some standing. He had already made his fourth blade, and was seen as a man with a future. So when he saw his sister cross the square to speak to the Tin Smith, he was furious and ran back to the house to tell his mother. The mother, who loved her daughter dearly, was also proud of her family’s name, told the brother to go with Sun to the well each morning, to make sure that she fetched the water, and nothing more. So the next morning, and every morning after, Nishiro sat working on his doorstep while his beloved’s brother insulted him, calling him tin-tapper, and copper-boy, and the Forgeless Wonder.
“Look at you, tin-tapper boy, sitting like an old woman while you tap on your pots! Real smiths stand up at their work, and ring the hammer off the anvil. We forge the steel and fold it, and make blades worthy of warriors! And what do you make? Piss-pots and bed-warmers for old men! Whistles and toy horses for children! You’ll never be man enough for my sister Sun!” And he would flourish his third sword, and strike at one of the pots and make a dent in it.
And Nishiro would sit in silence, and pick up the pot and tap-tap-tip out the dent as Sun went back to the Nagata forge, her head bowed.
This went on for a month.
And one day the tin-smith boy picked up an offcut from a cooking pan, and looked at it. Usually he would take the offcuts and make toys from them, but this piece he turned over and over in his hands and looked at it. Then he picked up his hammer and began to tap-tap-tip at the tin, carefully folding and pleating it until it was tucked together like the bolts of silk in Yu Nan. Then he took the folded tin and pleated it until it looked like the ridges in the plowed fields in Wu Wei. Then he turned it over in his hands and thought. And then he stood up and went into his house to talk to Luna, his mother.
And that night, and the night after, and for every night for a month, the lamp burned on the porch of the tin-smith’s house and the tap-tap-tipping was heard in the darkened square, until the neighbors complained. But still Nishiro worked, folding, and pleating and twisting his tin into shapes no one had ever seen in the village, or anywhere else in Hiyamma. Long pieces, banded with copper and riveted with brass; domed pieces, grooved and pleated like the narrow valleys of Han Shan itself; dished pieces, built of layer upon layer, and raised into cones and spikes. And Inside the house, Luna threaded silk through the holes Nishiro had made in the oddly shaped pieces of tin, and bound them together.
And then one night, the square was silent, and the neighbors slept, and Nishiro sat on the porch waiting for the dawn.
And as the sun rose that first day in spring, Sun and her brother came to the well, as always. And as always, the brother came to mock Nishiro. This time his eyes went round and he started to laugh. “Look, Sun! Look! The piss-pot boy has turned into a pot himself!”
For indeed, the morning sun shone off of Nishiro, for on his head was a pleated pot and down his arms were grooved pipes and around his chest was a great platter formed in mountain ridges. And in his hand was a broom-stick, and on the end of the stick was a great water- carrier, folded and pleated and worked into points like a star.
And the boy stood up.
“Defend yourself, sword-maker,” He said. And he hefted the broomstick, for the pot on the end was filled with sand, and weighed as much as half a sack of rice. And Nishiro swung the pot-on-a-stick and hit the sword-smith in the leg and sent him staggering. “Defend yourself, forger of steel,” Said Nishiro, and he swung the tin mace (for so it was) and hit the brother on the shoulder and sent him flying.
And now Sun’s brother was afraid and drew his third sword and struck at the tin-smith. But everywhere he struck, the folded and pleated tin turned the blow and his sword was useless. For even paper, if it is pleated and folded well will bear the weight of a horse, and tin can turn a blade, no matter how sharp or strong, if it is formed properly.
“Defend yourself,” Said Nishiro, and swung his pot. And the pot broke the sword and hit the brother on the head and lay him out on the ground. And Nishiro held out his hand to Sun and said, “Am I man enough?”
And to this day, the best armor in all Hiyamma is made in that village, and the children and grandchildren of Nishiro and Sun are famous for the strength and lightness of all they make. But even more famous are the little tin toys that come from that place.