JAUNTO WAS a burro who'd seen tourism material before; he'd read colorful travelogues and heard impressive local lore about dozens of cities and countries. There weren't many perks to being a cart hauler, but he did get to travel. He'd often found that places didn't live up to their legends, so he felt quite justified in his skepticism when his brother Ockley started writing him about the bizarre city-state of Yochtis, near Irrildia in the south.
He could believe that Yochtis was as diverse as Ockley described. Cities with a broad mix of species were becoming more common, and often a strong local culture could unite an otherwise disparate populace. What Jaunto couldn't quite swallow was this idea that everyone there considered their bodies to belong to everyone else. Ockley claimed you could ask a peacock for his tail if you found it pretty, and he'd give it to you. He claimed to have witnessed a hungry badger calling out for frog legs in a public square, and a frog hopping out of the crowd to provide them. He'd seen a young squirrel ask its mother for an ear from a passing elephant, so Ockley wrote, and the elephant had happily obliged.
Ockley even wrote that after a year or so of working his landscaping trade in Yochtis, he'd gone ahead and let a peckish tiger tear off one of his legs, just because she'd asked him politely for it. He was used to living three-legged now, and happier than ever. The culture of the city was contagious, he wrote. It was the best place he'd ever worked, and wouldn't Jaunto please come and visit?
Jaunto was flabbergasted, in fact. But he knew his brother well enough to know he wasn't lying about a tiger eating his leg. He knew, too, that his brother was capable of misinterpreting an environment, and had probably done so profoundly in his current station and paid the price. Still, Jaunto wasn't one to leave family out to dry. He arranged a vacation for himself and made his way south, telling his brother to expect him.
Bit by bit, Jaunto was forced to reassess. As he approached Yochtis by road, more and more often he found himself passing by folks with pieces missing. A buffalo with no tail; a three-legged tortoise; a pair of oxen with several artifical hooves. Eventually a goat with no legs at all wheeled by on a cart powered by a pump handle held in his teeth; he set it down long enough to wish Jaunto good day. By the time Jaunto finally arrived in town, he knew there was something remarkable about this place.
Sure enough, the brother who greeted Jaunto with a shout from the front gate was minus a front leg. His tail, too, was gone, which he hadn't mentioned in his letters. Ockley hobbled eagerly over for a brotherly nuzzle. Jaunto gave it to him but then asked sternly, "Your tail, too? Heavens, Ockley--what happened to it?"
Ockley looked somewhat abashed, but proud just the same. "The Sunrise Theater needed it for a prop! Who was I to say no?"
Jaunto snorted with disappointment. "Ockley, you crazy fool. What would Mum say if she were still around?"
"But she's never been here, Jaunto." Ockley seemed intoxicated with awe at his surroundings. "And the propmaster even gave me a free ticket! I'm going to see a play! I can't remember the last time I saw a play. I bet we could even get you a discount, if I told them my tail's being used as the belltower cord."
It was true--there were folks of all kinds going about their business here, and when Jaunto looked closely, about half turned out to be missing some body part or another--often more than one. "You weren't kidding about how things are here, were you?"
Ockley looked about with him. "No! It's incredible. There's this... sense of perfect camaraderie that seems to make anything possible."
They walked for a while, Ockley pointing out important buildings and landscaping projects he'd been involved in. Jaunto watched the people more. A peg-legged deer... an anteater with no snout... a wallaby toting a mesh bag of assorted severed paws. His eyes must have gotten ever wider, because eventually Ockley stopped walking and checked him on the hip.
"Come on, already. Go ahead and test it! It's obvious you're dying to."
But Jaunto didn't even realize what he meant. "Test what?"
"Go ahead and ask someone for something! They won't mind, I promise you." He shook his leather bag, which jangled. "I've got cutting supplies, I'm always ready."
"Will anything else satisfy you? Go on, get it out of your system!" Ockley sank to his haunches and waited with uncharacteristic patience.
They were in a stone-tiled square filled with passing people of just about every species you could ask for. Slowly, Jaunto realized the breadth of possibilities open to him if his brother's accounts were true. As if rebelling against the outlandishness of the city, Jaunto sought for the most presumptious request he could think of, just to prove Ockley wrong and set some limits to this unnerving fantasia. He tilted his head up and saw a number of birds flying over the modest buildings, few more than two stories tall. One bird was white and elegant and caught his eye.
"I don't suppose you suppose you could talk the wings off that heron," he suggested in the tone of a challenge.
Ockley gave a little sigh. "I don't need to do the talking. There's no trick to it, Jaunto! If you want that bird's wings, just ask for them!"
Jaunto shrugged, shifting his legs and lifting his neck. If this was supposedly so easy, he wouldn't even bother concocting a rationale. "Ahoy! Miss heron!" he called. "You there, in the sky!"
A few heads turned nearby, but most turned away again soon enough. To Jaunto's mild surprise, the white bird wheeled slowly around and then descended quickly with a few energetic flaps. She landed with a last-moment glide, a few yards from the pair. It was hard to read her expression, since she was a bird, but the impression she gave was chipper.
"Egret, actually! What can I do for you?"
Time to test the waters, as preposterous though it might seem. "I'm fresh new in town," said Jaunto, "and I wondered if you might let me cut off your wings. Just to get a feel for how the place works."
Jaunto was prepared for incredulity, but there was no mistaking it--the bird's expression was bright. "My wings? Certainly!" She opened her wings slightly and refolded them before striding a few steps closer and examining the burros. "And welcome to Yochtis! Are the two of you here together?"
Ockley spoke up. "We're brothers! I've lived here some time now, and Jaunto here is visiting."
"Aah," said the egret, nodding. "And you saw me flying over and decided you'd like some of me as a souvenir?"
Jaunto had to admit it--she seemed in earnest. "I wasn't even thinking of keeping them, ma'am... I just had to know for myself whether you'd really shear them off for a stranger."
The egret gave her head a vibrant little tilt. "Fair enough!" she laughed. "And of course I will. Off they go! Have you got a knife, or a saw?"
Well, well. Apparently Ockley hadn't been such a fool after all.
Ockley rummaged for a second in his bag before extracting an elegant little bone saw with a pearlescent handle. He set it at Jaunto's hooves. "Always prepared!"
Jaunto had questions, though. "Just to be sure I'm not missing something..."
The bird nodded patiently, eyes still bright.
"This means you'll never fly again, correct? I don't want to be obtuse, but..."
"You can't fly without wings," replied the egret with a hint of matronly condescension.
"And you... have you got a family?"
"I do! A husband and five children, three still at home."
"And... won't this hinder your ableness to care for 'em?"
"Well, of course! My wings are a big part of who I am." The egret spread them wide, individual feathers raised. "But we'll get by, no worries."
Jaunto found himself starting to paw the pavement stones. He stopped. "May I ask what you do for a living?"
The egret didn't seem at all affronted at the interrogation. "I'm a bookkeeper for the trinket shop on Westly!" She pointed the way with a wing. "And yourself?
"A hauler," said Jaunto with his usual twinge of shame.
"Needs to be done!" said the bird in a way that somehow made the shame vanish. "And you?" she asked Ockey, whose missing leg made him clearly unfit to haul cargo.
"I'm a landscaper."
"Lovely!" The bird turned back to Jaunto, her wings relaxed. "So, have you got any more questions, or shall we de-wing this egret?"
Jaunto shook his head slightly, more in amazement than in reply. He found himself unsure whether he actually wanted to go through with it, now that it was clear the bird was willing. "Would it offend you, ma'am, if I told you I was satisfied, and you could keep your wings?"
The egret's head bobbed reflexively. "Oh, it certainly would. You can't back down from disassembling a stranger!"
Jaunto was stunned, but Ockley took the lead: "No, indeed! This fine lady's wings are as good as gone. Feeling queasy, Jaunto? I'll be glad to do the sawing if you'd rather."
A quell of guilt welled through Jaunto's stomach, but he rose to the occasion. "I'm not one for queasiness. I'll do it."
"Excellent," said the egret, extending her left wing fully. "Just to keep in mind, I'm on my lunch break, and I'm due back at the shop at one."
So she was going straight back to work after losing half her limbs unexpectedly on lunch break? This thought amazed Jaunto utterly enough to wash away his guilt. "I'll try to be expedient, then," he said, picking up the saw in his teeth.
"No worries--my boss is as understanding as the next fellow. Only saying!"
She lifted her head as Jaunto began to saw and the blood began to flow. He was too intent on cutting straight to watch the egret's expression carefully, but she seemed intensely focused, whatever her thoughts. She shifted her feet just a little at the halfway point, but otherwise remained still throughout. Jaunto angled the saw inward for leverage to complete the cut, and there it was--the white-feathered wing tumbled to the pavers.
"Nicely done!" complimented the egret, lowering her head. "Was that your first time sawing another person?"
What a question. "Um... yes!" Jaunto eyed the blood pumping from the bird with apprehension. "Should we bandage that up?"
"That would be nice!" the egret said. "Although we have bandages at the shop, so it's no great concern."
"Still," said Ockley, dipping his head into the bag again and coming up with a bundle of bandages and gauze. "Arterial wounds are best bound--we wouldn't want to make a bookkeeper woozy!"
"Very considerate! I did give blood once," recounted the egret, turning to let Ockley patch her up. "It was a double dose, and you're right, it was quite the strange sensation!"
Jaunto couldn't help himself. "I'm guessing being wingless will be a strange sensation in itself."
"No doubt!" agreed the egret. "So far, I can't really tell--the pain is stronger than the oddness of not having a wing, if you see what I mean. But come by next week and I'll tell you how it feels!"
Ockley finished the bandaging and the egret lifted her right wing with no apparent qualms. Jaunto took up the saw again and repeated the process. This time he tried to tease out the mixture of emotions in the egret's bearing, but with his inexperience at reading birds, he could only guess that she was excited.
He finished, and Ockley stepped in to bandage her. Once he was done, the egret stretched herself vertically, beak raised to the heavens, and seemed to sigh. "No wings," she muttered to herself. Jaunto wondered whether that would be the entirety of her acceptance process, or whether she'd need more time to digest this later on. Either way, he was stupified. His brother really hadn't been joshing about the people in this city.
Regaining her compsoure, the egret turned around in place, looked herself over, and nodded to each burro in turn. "Well! Is there anything else I can do for you, gentlemen?"
Jaunto watched the way she stood on her graceful three-toed legs and briefly entertained the idea of asking her to saw them off. Should he? He quickly dismissed the thought as despicable, but the question lingered in his mind--if he asked, would she do it? Would she even hesitate?
Ockley raised a hoof, pointing across the square. "Not really. Just go and pluck out that ocelot's eyes, if you would, and tell him to eat them. And may you have a wonderful afternoon!"
Jaunto's head turned sharply toward the ocelot in question--at a glance, he was missing a hind leg and a forepaw, and was chatting with a one-legged sheep on a cart. Was Ockley joking?
The egret rippled with what seemed like laughter. "Certainly! It was a delight meeting you both. The shop's on Westly, in case you feel like stopping in. And once more, welcome to town, sir!" She bowed to Jaunto, who nodded in acknowledgement but was too overwhelmed to speak. Then she picked up her wings in her beak and strode off toward the ocelot.
Ockley came to stand beside Jaunto, and the two of them watched at a distance while the egret tapped the ocelot on the shoulder with a foot. Setting down her wings, she engaged him and his companion in conversation, and after a while, she indicated his eyes. The ocelot relaxed, laughing, and lowered his forebody, and the egret spent about ten seconds carefully extracting each eye. Afterwards, she rolled them some distance away, and the ocelot set to sniffing the ground, tracking them down. The sheep propped herself up on her single leg, speaking excitedly. When the ocelot found each of his eyes, he gobbled it up in triumph.
Only once he'd licked his lips did the egret finally look back toward the burros, just long enough to see that they'd been watching. She said something to the ocelot and sheep, picked up her severed wings, bounced once as if to lift into the sky, and then fell into an energetic stride toward Westly Street, not looking back again.
"Well? What do you think of this place now?" murmured Ockley.
Jaunto couldn't stop staring at the ocelot and the sheep, now back in animated conversation, even while blood dripped from the ocelot's eye sockets. He shook his head to clear it.
"It's wonderful," he said. "Can I stay with you until I find my own place?"
His brother grinned at Jaunto, wide-eyed.