HORNS OR WINGS • by Daniel Ausema

“Can you tell? Wings, or horns?”

The doctor held her chart, but didn’t answer. Sven rolled his eyes. Easy question, like every three months. Would he grow the wings this cycle or the horns? Why did she hesitate?

“Sir, something is abnormal. We’ll need to run more tests.”

“Tests?” Sven leaned back. He had his own work at the greenhouse to get to. “What’s that entail?”

“Another blood sample. Maybe some observation before you leave.”

“I can’t stay. Can’t you just tell me which is more likely, and I’ll start the regimen for that.” Sven had a full supply of both the honey for the wings and the cinder for the horns. An easy treatment that shortened the length of the outbreaks, as long as he chose the right one early enough.

“That’s the problem, sir. It seems you’ll have neither this time.”

“Neither? Well, that’s great.” Sven pushed himself forward and swung one foot to the floor. No outbreak at all, no need to use up one of his regimens. He’d already bought them, so it didn’t save money now, but eventually… He began planning what to spend the money on, until he noticed the doctor shaking her head.

“Not great, I’m afraid. It appears you’ll be developing something else this cycle.”


“We don’t know yet. That’s why we need further tests.” She shuffled the charts. “I’d rather not speculate. But if you’ll give the blood sample and promise to return in a few hours, then you may leave.”

Sven sat unmoving while the nurse drew the blood. Not wings or horns but something else. He’d never heard of such a thing. Every cycle since his adolescence he’d had one or the other.

“Not wings or horns, you’re sure?”

The doctor nodded, but she seemed as perplexed as he was.


A group got off the elevator as he arrived, so Sven didn’t have to wait. “Down or up?” the elevator girl asked, and he directed her down to the street. Walking toward the bus-stop, he tried to imagine what else he might be developing. Would people look at him strange when they saw… except, he couldn’t guess what they might see.

The bus pulled up with a hiss of brakes.

“Front or back?” the driver asked, and for a second Sven had the sense that there should be another choice. The feeling passed, and he paid for a luxurious seat up front. The ride to his greenhouse office was long.

He stared out the window and tried to forget the blood tests, the uncertainty. He had his work to focus on. Choices to make about how to nourish the seedlings. More water, or less; extra fertilizer or plain soil.

Everything he saw, though, offered a choice between two things. People were either men or women, children or adults. Street vendors offered a choice of red balloons or blue. The bus passed a classically constructed library with ancient columns. Beside it an apartment building went up with scaffolding on the front.

Back in the greenhouse, Sven faced the choice between chalky soil and acidic, between direct sunlight and filters. That was how it was meant to be. Day and night, hot and cold, here and there, young and old, good and evil. Horns and wings. He tasted cinders on his tongue, though he hadn’t started any regimen. What use, if this turned into something else?

He ran the experiments, checking the levels of various chemicals. The work blurred into background, though. Background and foreground, another pair! Whatever he picked up called to mind its opposite. Adjusting the bright glow lamp made him think of darkness. The seedling incubator induced images of an ice-rimed freezer.

He marked down the results — pen or pencil? — filed the papers away and left for the bus ride back.


The doctor shuffled her papers, but it was no longer out of uncertainty. “It’s fascinating. Some experts have hypothesized that this was possible. We’ll want to know more from you. How your previous cycles have gone, any changes in diet or activity.”

“Excuse me,” he interrupted. “What exactly does it mean?”

“Oh. Didn’t I say?” She found a particular paper and placed it on the counter beside him. “Dorsal fin. Best guess is we treat it with salt water. Pretty concentrated stuff, but not as bad as cinders, I’d think.” She pushed a jug that he hadn’t noticed before toward him.

Sven tried to think of some reaction. A fin. All he could think was, “Dorsal… that means back, right?”

“Mmmm.” The answer might have been agreement or disagreement, or maybe even a request for him to repeat himself, except she didn’t wait. “We won’t charge anything for this regimen, though we’d like to continue to monitor you for the next few days. There’ll be some paperwork, and a brief visit each day. Otherwise you’re free to do what you want. Relax at home. Return to work. Go to a park somewhere. Whatever you choose, sound good?”

“Uhh, yeah. Great.”

“Good, then follow me.”

An hour later, his hand sore from filling out forms, Sven descended to the street. It was after hours, so no one staffed the elevator. He made his own selection from the many floors.

Outside, a flower vendor accosted him. She had on a worn hat, and her smile seemed no less a piece of clothing. Or was it that the hat seemed no less a part of her expression?

“Poppies and lilies and daisies. Choose whichever you like.”

Sven stepped back but didn’t go around her as he usually would. He touched the center of his back reflexively. Nothing there, not yet. With the other hand he fished out money.

“Yes, I’ll take one of each.”

With the flowers tucked into the pocket of his jacket, he strolled through the nearby park on his way home.

Daniel Ausema has a background in experiential education and journalism and is now a stay-at-home dad. His fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous places, including Every Day Fiction, and Every Day Poets. He lives in Colorado.

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