SLEIGH BOY BY ASGER LUND
This is a short story written by Danish novelist Kjeld Asger Fydenlund (1929-2013) under his most usual pen name of Asger Lund. It was published in the first issue, June 1979, pp. 8-13, of Pan, a magazine about boy-love, published by Spartacus in Amsterdam.
Actually, it hadn’t been bad advice at all. ‘Peter, my friend,’ he had said, ‘you’re just over-worked. Even for someone thirty years old, the flesh - and in your case we must include that fattily degenerate mass you call a brain - sets a limit to what it’s able to endure. You’ve been too successful; your paintings are selling too well; you go to too many parties. You need peace and quiet, a change to de-clutch and recharge again on your own.’
Mixed metaphors, if you wish, but he was quite right. I had consulted Claus because I was having trouble sleeping, and he was a psychiatrist. We had known one another since our undergraduate days. We remained close friends. And he knew my sexual secret, ‘I have a proposal,’ he had continued in that soothing drawl which was such an asset in his profession. ‘You know I have a cottage in the woods, miles away from anywhere. Here are the door-keys . . .’ It had been the last thing I had wanted: idleness, and no one to love. But doctor’s orders, if the doctor is a friend or you are paying him a healthy fee, are to be taken seriously. I had obeyed, and found the pill not too bitter. After a few days I had actually begun to enjoy the quietness, the winter line of landscape lying snug against the horizon. Already I was sleeping quite a bit better.
That evening snow was falling, silently from a blue black sky. It gathered on the forest ground and muffled the landscape, isolated my silent hut from the busy world beyond. I had grown so accustomed to the limited sounds of my new dwelling place – the great hush of north wind in the pines, the creakings of the cabin - that I was startled when I heard a faint jingling outside. Sometimes during the week the snow-muffled bell of the parish church had carried through the forest, but this sounded much closer. I opened the door and peered out: all I could see was snow falling and swirling in the empty evening dusk.
I went back to my chair before the fire. I had eaten and I was growing sleepy. But the sound came again, then disappeared, then came again, and again. Curiosity finally overcame my laziness. I struggled into boots and overcoat, opened the door once more on the now-black night and fought my way through the snow drift beneath my eaves and out into the drive.
In front of me, just beyond the gate, was a dark shape. Supposing it to be a car, a traveller in trouble, out of petrol and running out of warmth, I waded toward it through the snow, but when I got to the gate I discovered, to my surprise, a horse hitched to an old country sleigh. There were bells on the harness and they rang as the horse, in its impatience, snorted and stamped in the snow.
No driver was to be seen anywhere. Inside the sleigh there was only a heap of old furs. I was trying to decide what to do with this odd apparition and puffing horse out on such a snowy night when something in the shape of the furs, the way they lay on the seat, suggested a human form. I reached for the furs, pulled them aside. And there, to my utter amazement, lay a sleeping naked boy!
I quickly covered the boy and lifted both him and the bear-skin - for that is what the furs proved to be - into my arms. His cheeks were ice against mine, his body stiff. I began walking toward the cabin with my odd burden, too preoccupied with the many questions racing through my mind to have noticed at first the dying jingle of sleighbells beyond the gate. At last I turned back but saw only snow and the black lace of trees against the sombre winter sky. Sleigh and horse were gone.
Inside I deposited my bundle on the sofa before the fire and carefully opened the furry wrapping. The boy was almost blue with cold but, although quite unconscious, he was breathing still. His young body was in the full bloom of early adolescence, firm, smooth, tender and, to one of my tastes, staggeringly beautifully. And his face, if possible, was even more compelling; half-length light-brown hair, now in abandoned disarray, framed it against the dark fur. Long, dark lashes curved down onto pale cheeks. The firmly closed mouth was full and somehow sensual: was that a smile, or a hint of a smile?
I worked to revive him, to bring him back to life. Sitting beside him on the edge of the sofa, I ran my hands over the cold but perfect flesh, infusing my warmth into his, massaging shoulders and chest and thighs and arms - oh, the feel of those thin, young fingers cold between my own clasped hands! ‘Please God,’ I whispered, although I’m not in the least religious, ‘don’t let him die here!’ Something, or someone, responded to my plea. The boy’s breath came more regularly, his chest arched to take in the warm, life-giving air. Colour came to lips and cheeks. At last he sighed and the long lashes raised on grey eyes staring into mine. They were full of confusion at first and wonder, but later, as I silently worked to revive him, there was something timidly imploring, a look of dumb, inarticulate need as well. At last the boy sat, and threw his arms about my neck. As I carried him to my bedroom his cheek was no longer cold, but burned against my own.
And then all of him was against me, moving, clasping, shuddering. In the total blackness of that bedroom a great sun awakened and rose higher and higher, evaporating the space about us, consuming our united flesh in the fierce fusion of its furnace. And set, sweetly, quietly, to let us doze against each other, then rose again and compelled us to penetrate its fiery secret in order to extinguish ourselves and sleep once more.
When I awakened in the morning both the boy and the bear-skin were gone. It was harsh, winter daylight now; with it came reflection - and a lot of questions. Where had the boy gone? I opened the door, but the gently drifting snow had long since filled any footprints made in the night. Who was this boy? What would the police say if they ran into him cruising the neighbourhood in a sleigh and a bear-skin? Or did he even exist? I had come here, hadn’t I, in exhaustion, to avert a nervous breakdown? Was he not, perhaps, a visual, tactile manifestation of my own hysteria?
Yet I was more at peace than I had ever been with myself. I started a painting - of a boy, of course, in a bear-skin in the snow. I worked almost euphorically through the day and hardly noticed when evening came again to the northern woods. At last I made myself some supper and was just sitting happily and sleepily before the fire when I heard once more the sound of sleigh-bells.
I struggled out into the night. There beyond the gate stood the same sleigh, the same proud and impatient horse, the same pathetic little bundle of furs. Once again I carried the precious burden indoors, revived the all-but-frozen boy and brought him into my bed. This time there was something else in his eyes: fear, and a look, somehow, of blame. But when the light was out and we were wrapped in darkness and each other, the same burning, compulsive ardour returned and, in great pulses, lit our sleep-interrupted journey through the long winter night.
In the morning he was gone, but the questions remained. Who was this boy? Why didn’t he speak? Was he deaf and dumb? Did he even exist outside the over-heated imagination of one painter? That night he returned again, the same way, but now the fear in his eyes was enormous. I tried to speak to him. He wouldn’t answer, but, as before, his body in the night welded itself to mine in a need which seemed born of burning pain. Pain, perhaps, for him; for me it was bliss, a salve to over-stressed nerves, a healing which seemed simple and deeply profound.
That was the last time the boy came to the cabin. The next evening, and the next, I listened for the sound of sleigh bells, but I never heard them again. Slowly, and a little sadly, I concluded that the boy, the horse, the sleigh, the bear-skin were of my own invention. It would make, at least, an interesting tale to tell Claus.
Three weeks later I was back in my own apartment, happy and cured. The phone rang. ‘Peter, you’re neglecting me,’ came the familiar drawl, ‘both as host and doctor. How are you?’.
‘Fine, but I have a surprise for you, and a very curious experience to . . . ’
‘And I have a surprise for you, dear Peter. Are you revived enough to endure a dinner party I’m having next Friday? Fine. I can’t tell you about it now since a patient is pacing the floor of my waiting room turning into Napoleon or something, but I want to hear all about your stay in the woods.’
I am not really the hermit type. It was good to get back into society again. Claus’s apartment was filled with guests when I arrived, mingling, drinking. Many of them I knew. Some of the women were the tiresome type that buys one of your paintings and then thinks she is your divine patroness from then to doomsday. So when Claus came up behind me and said, ‘Peter, there are two people here I especially want you to meet,’ I turned about with something like resignation.
I found myself staring into the fear-struck, imploring eyes of the boy in the bear-skin, only now he was neatly and handsomely dressed in a suit. A big-bosomed woman beside him put out her hand and started saying something about how much she and her son Torben had been looking forward to meeting the internationally famous painter, Peter Viltoft, but I hardly heard her, staring as I was at the sudden materialization of what I had convinced myself was some kind of male psychic sprite. As for the boy, the colour drained from his face until it was every bit as pale as on those nights when I had brought him in from the sleigh. His eyes filmed over and he crashed to the floor in a dead faint.
It was a minute or two before the party regained its equilibrium. Claus carried the boy to his bedroom and then explained to the worried guests and strangely angry mother that there was nothing to be concerned about, that boys at such an age often fainted, especially if they were socially anxious for some reason. A little later the mother collected her errant son and marched him out to a waiting taxi. I avoided his eyes, but not Claus’s. Toward the end of the evening I drew my host aside and said, ‘Was Torben your surprise for me?’
‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘but I didn’t think he would take one look at you and pass out. His family are country neighbours. He is a lost kid. I thought a friendship with you would be better therapy than anything I could give him. I would guess, incidentally, that he is not, and never will be, drawn to the opposite sex. You saw his mother; perhaps you can guess why.’
‘Well, now it’s time for my surprise,’ I said, and I told him of the sleigh, the bundle of furs and the boy. Claus shook his head. He was every bit as mystified as I.
A week passed, an enormously busy week for me catching up from my ‘cure’ in the country. Then one evening there was a knock on the door and Claus stamped in from the- snowy street. ‘Brandy,’ he demanded. ‘Mercy on your poor old doctor, and friend, especially because I bring very good and interesting news’.
I took his coat and made him comfortable with footstool and drink in one of my over-stuffed chairs.
‘Your friend — our friend — Torben has been my patient this past week,’ Claus began. ‘And all because his mother was impressed that I knew the famous Peter Viltoft, by the way.’
‘I’ll expect a commission,’ I joked, but only to cover my very real excitement.
‘Perhaps you’ll get it, only differently than you might imagine. I don’t usually talk about my patients to others, but in this case it seems necessary. While you were away in the country so were Torben and his mother, and just about the time you were having your strange experiences, Torben began having nightmares. He awakened every morning in a deep sweat, and with more than sweat on his sheets, so he knew the nightmares were somehow sexual, although he couldn’t remember what they were about. Well, under skilled probing, that memory is beginning to come back. It seems the dreams always begin the same way: he is in a sleigh in the middle of a snowstorm. He is wrapped in some old fur skins, but otherwise he is naked. The sleigh stops before a gloomy and lonesome house. Someone comes outside — a man or a woman, Torben doesn’t yet know which — and picks him up and carries him in. The rest he doesn’t remember, except that it’s terrifying and he wakes up screaming.’
‘Has he talked about what happened at your party?’
‘He doesn’t remember even seeing you. All he knows is that he fainted, and disgraced his domineering mother. Now, it is strange, isn’t it, that his nightmares coincide with your real or imagined erotic nocturnal experiences. Could he possibly have known you before?’
‘I don’t think so. But what about the sleigh and the horse?’
‘Torben tells me there is one in the neighbour’s barn, but after those three wild nights he went to look at it and decided it couldn’t have been moved for years. It was covered with dust and cobwebs. That was when he became so hysterical that his mother brought him back to the city.’
‘And his nightly visits with me stopped.’
We searched each other’s eyes for a minute, then Claus smiled. ‘I told you I had good as well as interesting news. I don’t know how to explain all these things, but I am convinced that we are dealing with love. Love in conflict with a strong drive to deny his non-heterosexual nature, for which I’m afraid we have his mother to thank.’
The phone rang. It was for Claus: the coming and goings of psychiatrists seem to be a secret from no one. I went to the kitchen and poured another brandy, and when I returned he met me standing, with grave eyes. ‘That was Torben’s mother, quite hysterical. It seems the boy has disappeared. He vanished without a trace from his bedroom about an hour ago. No clothes are missing, not even his overcoat.’
There was a rush in my mind, in my feelings, in my intuition. Somewhere, far off, in another plane of existence, came the sound of sleigh-bells, the creak of runners in the snow, the snorting and trotting of a proud horse. I knew what I had to do. ‘Claus, quick,’ I said, ‘let me have the keys to your cabin.’
It was, again, a harsh and snowy night. The drifts before the front door were bigger than ever. I shovelled them away as best I could, went in and started a fire in the open hearth. I made myself a brandy and settled down to wait before the hypnotic flames. And all the time I could hear the sleigh-bells, the ring of horse’s hooves upon frozen ground.
When the knock came I started out of my chair. I ran to the door, flung it open, and there stood Torben. He was naked but not in the least cold. There was still fear in his eyes, but also a strength, and a kind of resolve which was quite new. I drew him inside, then into my embrace. Wordlessly, possessed with a wild and deep excitement, I led him to my bedroom.
Once more the heavens, the far galaxies reeled as we joined our flesh and spirits, as we drove into the deep secrets of ultimate union. Then our spirits came back to our bed in the little cabin lying snug under the northern wind. I kissed him good night and we both slept.
I awakened with a sense of loss, knowing even before I opened my eyes that the boy no longer lay beside me. I threw on my clothes and went out into the living room. The door stood open. This time his footprints in the snow hadn’t yet had time to disappear under the caressing fingers of the wind.
The track was easy to follow. It led to the gate. And there, in the shelter of a drift and a couple of small bushes, the boy lay, cold, stiff, completely unconscious but still breathing. I picked him up, turned to carry him once again into the cabin, when suddenly behind me came the thunder of hooves, the clang of harness bells, and I stumbled out of the way just as horse and sleigh loomed out of the snowstorm and drew up beside me.
I didn’t, of course, know what I was doing. I had no reason, only some blind intuition, which derived from I knew not where, to guide me. But in the back of the sleigh was the bear-skin, and, kissing Torben gently on his icy cheek, I laid him in it and wrapped him as snugly as I could. The horse whinneyed, put its one raised hoof firmly down in the snow and the sleigh moved off into the winter night, the sound of its bells fading with the apparition.
A few days later the mail brought a letter from Claus:
Dear Peter: I have just had a phone call from Torben’s mother. It seems the morning after his mysterious disappearance he was back in his own bed but covered with an enormous bear-skin. This is most curious. Has anything happened at the cabin? It appears that he is a changed boy. He is full of enthusiasm for life, for new projects at school. But when he is asked where he went that night and how he came by the bearskin, he just smiles and won’t answer. At any rate, he is extraordinarily happy. His mother claims she is delighted, but I detect a bit of worry on her part that, in losing his neurosis (or whatever it was) she may be losing him. I think you can safely return.’
The next day I was home. The painting of the boy in the bear-skin was almost finished. I was staring at it, strangely pleased by what I felt was a new departure in my work, when the phone rang.
“Hello,” said a hesitant voice. Mister Viltoft?”
“Yes,” I said, somehow recognizing the voice although I had never heard it before, already feeling my heart-beat accelerate.
“This is Torben. I think it’s time we got to know each other as people, don’t you, rather than spirits. Are you alone? Can I come over?”
Comments of general interest will be collected at Letters To The Editor (some editing may be involved)
Editor, 25 May 2022
"I would guess, incidentally, that he is not, and never will be, drawn to the opposite sex."
I understand Asger Lund loved teenage boys. For such a man, he seems to have had a strange obsession that the ideal boy for his love stories must be permanently incapable of attraction to the other sex. They seem to be so in his full-length novel, The Boy and the Dagger. In his short story, Ahmet, the Treasurer's Son, it is much worse: the boy has already shown his love and given himself to the man, and yet he is threatened with rejection as unworthy until he has proved himself incapable of arousal in the arms of a beautiful young woman.
Why was it not good enough for Lund's romantic imagination that his ideal boy should be in love with the man and, with his ordinary pubescent sexual fluidity, excited to sleep with him for a few years to come? And, supposing it were really true that these boys were to remain incapable of heterosexual feeling, what are we supposed to imagine happens to them when they become men and are still fully in love with their lovers? Do they simply get dropped, their hearts likely broken, given that their lovers, like Lund, are only attracted to boys?
What also worries me about Viltoft/Lund's attitude though is what happens if they are wrong about their boys' orientation being so immutable? And I suspect this happened often. If Torben in this story found he liked girls, he would be under terrible pressure to hide it from Viltoft. Isn't it possible too that, simply believing the implicit message that he is a permanent homosexual and lucky to be so, he is put off realising a heterosexual potential that might have made him happier?