Cenere the Dog and His Portrait
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Here is a story that loses no savour in the telling.

Recall, if you will, old Cenere. There was a rogue! Malfeasant in manner and in mien, among the most morbid of His Hardship’s company. Scarcely was there a day when he could not be found to jeer at our celebrations, disturbing the City’s cheer by lounging in fountains and publicly shedding pieces of his person. (We know that the City was glad to retake it, as she is ever fond of embracing her children should they slip - but often must settle for their parts, when they see fit to discard them. Poor beldam! May we be ever in her whims.)

His was an epithet freely chosen as much as given, for when some well-traveled functionary noted his resemblance to one of the four-footed, slobbering beasts that dwelt in a realm of utter insignificance, Cenere was the first to take it up. He wore it proudly, much as any of the effluvia and worm-meal that caked his chitin.

Now we are all put in mind of this unsavoury image. Retain it - it shall be of import subsequently.

And each of us know also that when His Stygian Hardship, Her Sable Melancholia, They-Whose-Inkéd-Name-Shall-Be-No-More-Uttered-Save-As-A-Curse-In-This-City was exiled from this very isle, others of that coterie followed fast behind. Not all at once, no, for we know the price for such defections, but little by little, as coal-dust trickles from the funnel. For love of their lordship they went, or for resentment of the city that had outthrown them, and truth be told we were not often sorry to see them go. For who should live in Alagadda who does not desire fully to be there? And who should be trusted, who ever once followed a lord so warped as that?

Cenere, the dog, was long suspected to have been among that number, for he disappeared at around that time. You know well the fashion among some of our eminences to name those darker times “the dog’s days,” in hopes that their colleague’s ousting would rid our city of such unrestful influences. And from time to time one might hear certain nearly-nostalgic murmurings on the street, or notice discreet glances cast about, as though in search of something just about to emerge disheveled and filthy from the corner of one’s vision. Whether out of perverse wistfulness, persistent loathing, or mere curiosity—which we know is the deadliest muse by far - the vanishing of this public menace invited much rumor.

To those of you still in the throes of torrid conjecture, this tale will no doubt be met with grim relief. For I have here in my mind - and on my tongue - word of what befell that most familiar mongrel.

Cenere departed Alagadda on one of those myriad paths that lead through the void, twisting and treacherous. And treacherous to Cenere this one proved to be! - for between one step and the next, between thought and motion, the bridge dissolved beneath him and sent him hurtling down, down, down into the spaces between the worlds.

Old Cenere fell for a long time: through lands far and fallow, realms of all chromatic and chronological arrangements, cosmic recesses untrodden even by the hook-heeled one. Worlds where the ground arched over an inward-facing sky, and worlds where vast thistles breathed their down up into a vortex of fritillaries. Strange and marvelous all, yet none the stage for our story.

What concerns us is this: old Cenere opened his eyes and could not move. Nor could he perceive the rest of his body or, in fact, speak.

(Woe betide! Truly, what misery matches that of the provocateur when deprived of his only weapon?)

But Cenere could look, and look he did.

Suspended he was, on a wall beneath which spread rows and rows of seats. Set into the opposing wall was a great window of colored glass, a patchwork of alien and familiar hues. Eventually he made out a set of wooden beams - some sort of vertical settee - on which a strange figure reclined. The ends of its limbs, outflung like a bird in flight, were stained in the color of revelry; so too its chest and the hair about its brow. The face bore an expression of drowsy serenity.

And so for much time Cenere beheld this image, for there was nothing else to do. It remained unmoving, utterly still; there was no sign of life to it, not even what passes for life among the mortals of this world. From time to time smaller creatures would congregate along the seats, sometimes more than others, and after certain incomprehensible rituals would issue a chorus of noise from their throats. This filled Cenere with the utmost envy, for he remembered the times when he was free to mock the citizens of our fair city with his own voice, now made inaccessible to him.

Few of these mortals looked back at Cenere. Their eyes were for the pierced and bleeding thing opposite, and even when they turned towards Cenere it was brief, with wary gaze and gestures across their chests.

Then - he could not say when, for time on this world is too rigid and treacle-thick for our ken - one of them paused beneath his wall. An old man, hunched and grey with age, and he raised a hand swollen with arthritis in what appeared to be a greeting.

“Now, you’re a fine devil!” he said. “Seems a shame for you to be stuck up on this wall. Come to think of it, how did I miss you before?”

Cenere, of course, was unable to answer, though even if he could he would not have been able to find one.

Day after day the old man returned, to scrutinize every inch of what Cenere could only assume was his own image. Sometimes he brought a pad of paper on which he would scribble marks with a piece of charcoal, periodically glancing up at Cenere.

Time passed. Then one day Cenere opened his eyes and saw no longer the rows of seats and dyed-glass figure on the back wall. Or rather - he still saw this, but only from one eye.

From the other, he saw a pinch-faced man with small round spectacles, holding a paintbrush. The brush came up another time and he saw the same scene through the other. This time he looked upon a small, dark room, within which loomed the shape of forge and bellows and a great scored wedge of anvil that filled up the space so much that it seemed a shock that there should be any room left for inhabitants.

The painter stepped back, turning to the old man, who had been observing his work. A grubby-looking child stood off to the side, also peering up, though warily.

“How is this?”

“Perfect!” said the old man, who Cenere took to be a smith, though his tools were much cruder than those of our artisans. Gnarled were the hands he clasped together, and a wide crooked grin lit up the wrinkled face.

“Thank you, master. I tell you, you wouldn’t believe how long it took to find a willing artist!”

And so began Cenere’s life at the smithy. Each day the old man would enter through his door and greet him before going about his work, calling him tovarisch and fellow countryman and other such nonsense. The words filled him with puzzlement, for even in Alagadda none had seen fit to call him countryman: we had all found him too distasteful, just as he did his best to make himself distasteful.

After some experimentation, Cenere found that he could throw his sight between the smithy and the mortals’ holy building, though the latter held little interest for him. For at the smithy he soon found that he could perceive his head, and then his torso, then limbs, fingers, toes. Not only that, but he could move!

Still, he was confined to small gestures and could not make many at a time. Nor could he remove himself from the wall. He amused himself by making faces - from grin to grimace and back again - and frightening the smith’s customers, who would blink and gape and shake their heads like fleabitten hounds. This was double joy for him, for in the City he’d had a face like all of ours, still and porcelain-hard as faces are meant to be - not the fleshy, stretchable stuff possessed by those who dwell in this realm.

Often the grubby child - presumably the smith’s son - would play in the smithy, when his father was too busy to show him the tools of their trade. But he gave Cenere’s door as wide a berth as the space allowed. Once, the boy struck up the courage to creep closer. Quick as a serpent Cenere pulled a face, and it was his best one yet: he stretched his mouth as wide as it would go, stuck out his tongue, and rolled his eyes back in their sockets. The child went wailing for his father.

And so the blacksmith’s son developed a hatred for the painting that his father greeted daily like a friend.

As I have said, time is a thing that does not mean for them what it does for us. For us it is like the ebb and flow of waves at the eternal shore, fluid and mutable, yet ever-returning. For them it is like… the weight of all the earth, an inexorable march, proceeding in a single direction for all eternity and bearing down with crushing force.

And so in time the smith grew ever more hunched of back, more wrinkled and smaller of step, as though that invisible force pressed down on him. And it came to pass that one day he did not come back into the smithy at all.

For weeks the place stood empty. Cenere waited and waited for him to step sprightly through the door with his usual salutations, and then for anyone at all.

Finally, he felt the door swing open. But it was not the cheery old man who came walking through, but his son, who had grown into a dour and doughty youth. Hard of face and heart, he quickly set to work.

Now a bleak chill fell upon Cenere, who envisioned his image defaced, his door torn down, and his vision banished back to that monotonous sanctum. But the blacksmith’s son did none of that. Instead, he would merely knock Cenere’s head with a monstrous hammer, exactly thrice, whenever he came to ply his trade. And it was always accompanied by a glob of spittle.

And Cenere - to his surprise - felt it! He felt the blows of hammer on door, hard and heavy as the passage of hours, and the wet slime of the spittle. Never before had he been so insulted! While normally he would have been glad to regain some of his faculties, and as accustomed as he was to filth and squalor, this was not to his liking. The old man’s treatment seemed to him infinitely preferable to that of his son’s. But there was naught for it - the old man did not return, and only the son frequented the forge.

Several of their years passed like this, as Cenere redoubled his efforts to frighten away the son’s customers. And his faces were more terrible than ever, for now he acted out of hatred rather than jest.

Business began to suffer. The townsfolk whispered of a curse on the smithy: a painting not only blasphemous, but haunted as well. While he was living they had tolerated it out of respect for the old man and the quality of his workmanship. But his son had no such talent, and was a prickly man besides. Only the memory of his father, who had commissioned it, had stayed the son’s hand. But now he began to think long and hard, and to wonder if he should not remove the painting after all.

At this point Cenere found that he had regained much of his movement. The only matter left was that of moving along multiple dimensions, and soon he found that he could almost reach his hand from the painting.

And so in the dead of night Cenere reached out from the door - first a finger, then a hand, and then two. He braced himself against the frame and heaved himself from it bodily.

Alas! When Cenere stood he found that this body was frail and sickly, covered with spots of the kind that comes with mortal disease. He had emerged in the form of a leper. And not just any leper - but one with rheumy eyes, swollen joints, and long matted hair that resolved into a wild beard. And in this form he felt mortal weakness for the first time, and all the pains of a perishable body, such that he slumped on the floor and could not get up for some time.

Try as he might, he could not change his shape.

This is all very well for the City, thought Cenere. All the better to appall them with. But what of my plans for the smith’s son? For he had many such plans indeed.

And so in the morning a leper came begging at the smithy’s door. “Some food and a roof over my head, master,” rasped Cenere, “and I shall be your assistant.”

The son would have laughed, were he the laughing type. Instead he merely glared, and had nearly slammed the door in Cenere’s face when the leper stuck his foot through the crack.

Heedless of the pain, he continued. “My name is Konstantin Cherniy. I may look like a dog, but I can smith. In fact, I was a friend of your father’s - we apprenticed with the same master.” (For when he was in his cups the old man would sometimes sit by the door and tell Cenere of his life.)

“Let me ask you: was not your father also aged at the height of his craftsmanship? Was he not heard to say ‘many hands make light work’? These hands, ugly as they are, are still hands. At least let me prove my skill.”

The son regarded him suspiciously, but the mention of his father had unsettled him. Reluctantly he allowed the leper to craft what he would - just one item, to prove his worth. Having watched their work for so many years, Cenere fashioned a beautiful theater-mask of beaten bronze, in the shape of a laughing face. Despite its utter uselessness, so detailed was the workmanship - and so quick the work - that the son had to concede his skill.

From then on he worked as an assistant at the smithy, and with Cenere’s help, the business was restored to prosperity. As they worked, the son slowly realized that this uncouth man was a person of unusual wit and insight, and could sometimes be quite humorous. (Trust a mortal to flock to vulgarity!)

Of course, that the devil on the door - which to Cenere’s delight turned out to be a dog-headed one, a veritable hellhound! - no longer made such fearsome faces helped a great deal as well. Though no one caught more than glimpses of him, rumor began that the wild-looking man that the young smith had hired was in fact an exorcist: one of those mad, wandering monks who could banish devilry with nothing but a swing of the censer and the concentrated wrath of God. O, delectable irony!

One day an aged baroness was passing by the smithy. She heard the strains of a familiar melody from the window. Approaching, she beheld a man hammering something into shape on the anvil - then gasped.

“My good man,” she exclaimed, taking care not to step too close. “If I may ask, how can you work in your condition?”

“Oh, simple!” said Cenere, pausing in his work. “My master Koschei taught me many tricks. My illness was too advanced to reverse, but at his workshop, I learned how to forestall my death.”

“And wherever did you learn that song you were humming?” she asked. “It reminds me of when I would dance with my sisters on the banks of the Volga, and weave crowns of flowers.”

“At his workshop also.” Then, conspiratorially: “But the greatest trick of all was that of restoring youth. For a lady as kind and venerable as yourself, I could reverse… forty years? Perhaps fifty.”

She stepped into the smithy and asked him what to do. First, said Cenere, she should put on the laughing theater-mask, and then go lay in the forge. It will grow warm, but she need not fear, for that is the sign of returning vitality. When the spell was done, he would pull her out again. And so the lady did as he bid her, for although somewhat afeard she thought to herself - I have lived such a long, full life already, and now at the end all seems grey and lonesome. What have I to lose?

But all transpired as he said it would, the warmth less like flames than a summer breeze. And when Cenere fetched her from the forge, the baroness felt - changed. Though her appearance remained the same, her heart and mind were bright as springtime, and she felt as lively as a young girl - as though she could dance a hundred waltzes. Tearfully thanking the leper, she rushed back to her carriage, sped home, and begged her husband to visit the smithy too.

By that time the blacksmith’s son had returned from his errands and resumed his work. When word came that the baron was to visit his smithy, he asked Cenere to hide himself away, as was their custom.

“Is it true that you can make one young at heart?” asked the baron. “My wife said that someone here could do so, by putting you in a mask and then laying you in the forge.”

“No, sir,” said the son, beginning to wonder what Cenere had gotten up to when he was gone. “You must be mistaken. I have never heard of such a thing.”

“Then you are calling my wife a liar, and that she certainly is not.” He turned to his guards. “Seize this man. You will perform the procedure or find yourself short a head.”

And so the son had no choice but to fetch the mask for him, and help him into the forge, for the baron was not so young himself. He left him there only a few moments, hoping to salvage him with only a few injuries - but it was too late. When he pulled him out the baron had died, strangely silently, of his burns.

So the blacksmith’s son was to be tried and hanged for murder, though it must be said that there was very little of fairness nor justice - those ideals they claim to so adore - in those proceedings. The baroness was beside herself, and unable to testify, so that only the word of the guards could be relied on.

On the night before the hanging, the son was staring awake at the ceiling on his hard cot when a figure appeared at the bars of his cell. Cenere had come to gloat.

“Oho, what is this? A dead man laid down, as though already in the grave!” And he grinned with all of his hideous crooked teeth. “Now, young man, this may be hard to believe - but I was the devil in that painting your father commissioned. For all those long years I was his dear companion, and he spoke to me as a friend when you were no more than a brat. So you see, it is not only my pride for which I claim redress - for believe me, I have nothing of the sort - but his as well. For every time that you spit on me, you were spitting on his memory as well!”

The smith’s son listened to all of this without a word. When Cenere had finished, he said: “So you may be. Then you should know that it was for love of him that I left you there at all.”

By then Cenere had realized his purpose, as it were, for being sent to this world and confined to that painting. For the City in her infinite mercy had seen fit to bestow him with one more chance to prove his worth as a citizen. Her words came to him through time and space, as though in a dream: Condemn this man! Play this ultimate jape, and you may return to our fountains and plague us to your heart’s content.

Cenere considered this. Perhaps he found it tempting. Perhaps even he had dreamed of the City in his exile, this consummate ingrate, dreamt of her endlessly winding streets and ochre skies, her glass-blown fountains in the shapes of the universe’s own hopes and fears - even its fleas! - and the lapping of the eternal tides.

But there is a certain point beyond which a storyteller can no more speculate. Who knows what played in the folds of that depraved mind? Perhaps some unfathomable emotion had seeded themselves in his chitin. For Cenere, ever contrary, said to the blacksmith’s son:

“Very well. Then I will help you out of this mess, as long as you do something for me in return. For as rude as you are, I do not think he would want you dead.”

And so on the following day when the sun rose and the smith’s son was marched off to the gallows, who was to stall their path but the baron himself? Alive as if by miracle, accompanied by the affronted baroness, she made him apologize to the son, then apologized herself and explained what had happened. Evidently he had not been killed but merely badly injured, and by her neglect rather than his - she had failed to describe to him this mysterious alchemist who could restore the youth of the soul.

But this very man - a saintly, holy man by all accounts - had fetched his body from the grave and healed him, bringing him back to her just before the crack of dawn. ‘Breathed the spirit of life back into him’ were the baron’s own words - his wife quickly assured the authorities that he was delirious, still reeling from this harrowing experience.

So the blacksmith’s son was released back to his smithy, still watched over by the devil on the door, which was no longer beaten nor spat upon. He was evermore filled with inspiration, and the quality of his works increased until he became very wealthy indeed.

As for the holy leper, old Cenere himself, he vanished. However, it was soon told that in the nearby towns and cities, an unidentified patron began to commission paintings of devils and dog-headed figures, and that despite much scandal it became all the rage among artists of that region. Strange things, however, were said about these paintings after their display - tales of crude gestures and ugly faces that reverted as soon as one looked away, and other such superstitions.

And to this day we might imagine that Cenere lives on in this backwater, in his one-dimensional tableaux, toying with the mortals and deriving his particular brand of satisfaction from their affront.

By custom, this is the part where I dispense some wisdom upon you, some ‘let this be a lesson to us all.’ Yet as none of us present can be said to share his unique sensibilities, we may simply pity him, and be gladdened all the more that he is gone.

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