The Painted Pulse

The brothers Conway were quite well known in the city of Dubois, but as far as I am aware, not much outside of it. As such, I will begin my recounting of these events with some history of the family to paint a clearer picture of my relationship with the brothers. Their mother, Edith Conway, was a celebrated singer and concert pianist. Their father was Gerald Conway, a brilliant doctor, and artist. As such, they each enjoyed some level of fame separately which was only bolstered by their union, and of course, they were also moderately wealthy. They lived down the way from me in an antiquated but stately manor that stood looming on a hill overlooking the rest of the town. The house itself was steeped in dread and legend for reasons known only barely to even the elder folk of the town. Such tales of whatever past horror that had befallen the place had become so gnarled and twisted by time that nearly no ounce of truth remained to them.

Despite this shapeless and ancient sentiment, their two sons, Benjamin and Arnold, grew up quite well in the house, and it eventually became known more for the talented and exceptional family that currently resided in it rather than any long-forgotten evil. Arnold was my age while Benjamin was three years our junior. Arnold and I spent much of our formative years together, we painted together, and for a while, I thought he was sweet on me, but what happened between us in that regard is a story for another night. Ben was often found playing one of the family’s pianos, and on quiet days I could hear him all the way from my bedroom window, which faced the Conway manor. Often I would find myself skipping up the stone path that led from my house to theirs, visiting on summer afternoons to pore over books from their father’s prodigious library, or paint landscapes with Arnold, or listen to Ben’s musical ventures long after the twilight slipped away into the night-dark and my own parents called me back to slumber.

The brothers were perfectly vivacious, spritely young men until about the time their mother died. Shortly after her passing, on Arnold’s 20th birthday, their father also died suddenly, leaving the two brothers alone in that big empty house. Although, I shouldn’t call it empty. Even then, every wall was a towering bookshelf of medical textbooks, tomes of history and anthropology, collected artworks, artifacts, curios, and sundries. As the years went on it only got more full of the endless supply of knick-knacks that the brothers collected.

But even this, I can only surmise. I fell out of touch with them around that time and we rarely spoke. Even as neighbors we saw each other only in fleeting and ephemeral moments, and they kept to themselves alone on that hill. The times that I went over there to deliver them gifts or other tokens in hopes of rekindling our friendship I was met by Arnold, who always appeared weary and unkempt. In his eyes, I saw a deep fatigue I never recognized in any other man.

The state of the house never improved since the last time I had visited, always acquiring fresh layers of dust and new stacks, or boxes, or even crates of new items of all sorts. They always assured me they were for some project, or invention, or some new tangent of interest one of them was exploring.

In all my visits up there, there always seemed to be a strange feeling I would get that would prompt me to leave. Not a physical sensation, but a twinge of fear at the back of my mind that something wasn’t quite right. It didn’t help that the brothers’ normal penchant for conversation had seemingly withered over the years. Despite both of them being avid scholars of all manner of subjects, it was often quite difficult to get more than a few sentences out of either of them before the conversation lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Eventually, I would end up excusing myself and returning home shaken and disheartened.

I took to occasionally staring up the hill at that silhouetted manor, hoping to see a glimpse of movement that let me know they still lived. The house would stand silently, a black void etched onto the pale of the sky as clouds and moonlight slowly slunk behind it. I would peer at the windows, telling myself it was just to check on them while some smaller part of me cowered in fear. Eventually, a shadow would pass by a window and I would exhale a breath I did not know I had been holding.

The years passed, and I moved away for a time. I studied abroad, lived in many other corners of the world, and in time, I nearly forgot about Arnold and Ben Conway. But of course, the story does not end there. I eventually returned home many years later when my father died and left our old house to me. Having a fondness for both the property and the town I elected to return home and settle down, although my marriage at the time ended up not being as permanent as I had hoped. But I digress. That part of my life story is not important to this tale. Suffice to say, I was a much older woman before I saw the brothers Conway again.

By this time their reclusiveness had only intensified, and as I returned to Dubois before I even saw the brothers again, I started to learn the local rumors surrounding the two. The children of Dubois had created a fantastical mythology where the brothers were either cannibals or devil worshippers depending on who you asked. There wasn’t much to be done about that, as the minds of children can create the most exotic stories imaginable from whole cloth. Of course, the brothers’ withdrawn nature lent itself to speculation and imagination. However, even the adults of the town seemed to be drawn to whispering in private and making cruel jokes about the brothers that were often more absurd than the children’s speculation.

This hearsay and gossip had led to full-blown harassment of the brothers, starting with schoolchildren singing nasty rhymes as they passed by the house on the hill, and culminating with groups of teenagers throwing rocks through their windows. It was after one such incident that Arnold barred the first-floor windows of the house and erected a wrought-iron fence around the entire property. Needless to say, this only made the brothers more withdrawn from the town that once welcomed them.

Following this, another common occurrence was that the police were called by some mischievous local and told that one of the brothers had died, to which they would send a constable to check in on the pair. They were met by Arnold, who would explain to them that they were both in good health, and as the brothers continued to pay their bills, there was not any reason the police had to enter, and so they ended up leaving them mostly alone.

Due to the somewhat high-profile nature of their parents and situation, the house was occasionally visited by reporters, writers, and the like looking to find out what exactly happened to the hermit brothers. In the event that someone would come to the door, they would either be ignored, or one of the second-floor windows would open up and Arnold would give the visitor a tongue lashing so severe they would more often than not never return. That said, I never found Arnold to be a rude or violent man, just one who valued his own peace and privacy. These bouts were very uncharacteristic of the Arnold that I had known growing up.

At this point in my life I too was living in my own house alone, but not nearly in the manner that the brothers went about it. I went to church every Sunday, tended my garden, visited my other neighbors, and spent many of my days teaching or painting. Shortly after my return to Dubois, It came to my attention that I hadn't spoken to Arnold in over a decade, let alone seen Ben. I found myself in the familiar position at my window, my gaze fixed up the hill at the manor that crowned it. In my gut I felt an unease that I had not felt since leaving Dubois so many years ago, and as I watched the moonlight filter through the tumultuous ocean of clouds and wreathe the house in a shroud of spectral silver, I made up my mind to speak to Arnold and Ben again.

Other locals had whispered of Arnold’s infrequent excursions from the house. Under cover of darkness, he would slip from the door, undo the locks on the iron gate and emerge with a cart, walking down the empty streets of Dubois to the general store, where he would retrieve an order of supplies and scurry away with it back up the hill, to not be seen again for another month at the least. 

It was on one such night that I intercepted him as he returned with his cart laden with goods. It was hardly the meeting I had hoped for, confronting him awkwardly in the dark of night, feigning surprise at the encounter I had in fact orchestrated under the guise of random happenstance. Strangely, despite not seeing me in over a decade, he did not seem surprised to run into me. After exchanging pleasantries, I walked with him back to the house as we caught up.

He told me that Ben had fallen ill some time ago and he was taking care of him, which is why he was not often out of the house. As we walked, I was not able to clearly see his face in the dark, but when we passed beneath streetlamps I would catch glimpses of deep wrinkles carved into his face like rivulets of age, and sunken and bloodshot eyes. It was no leap of judgment to say he did not look well.

As our journey neared its end, I asked if I could come back to the house with him and help him with his groceries. He hesitated before dismissing my request. I posited that if I could come over just for a moment and confirm that they were alright I could make sure that the house was not visited by any more reporters or harassing townsfolk by giving them the facts, and thus the brothers would likely be left alone. He seemed to acquiesce to this and allowed me to return to the house with him. And with that, we reached the iron gates at the base of the hill. Arnold reached within his wool coat and produced a small ring of keys, and with a shaking hand that appeared in the moonlight to be nearly bone-white, undid the lock. 

The gate whined open and we stepped onto the grounds. The cold of that night was unlike the cold of any other night I had felt in Dubois. As I looked around, the familiar landscape surrounding the house that I had known so well in my youth appeared unfamiliar and overgrown. Trees that Arnold and Ben and I had once climbed as children now seemed to stretch skyward in lamentation, the shadows of their branches dancing upon the stones of the path like pulsing veins beneath the sickly skin of some great beast.

Arnold locked the gate behind us. Together, we walked up the path to the house in silence. I did not even think to attempt to continue the conversation, as my mind was preoccupied with the eeriness of the circumstances I found myself in. Our footsteps were the only sound that broke the night’s stillness.

As we approached the house, I saw it closely for the first time since I had returned. The paint, once vibrant, was now decayed and peeling, and the exterior had fallen into disrepair. Black ropes of ivy coiled between the once-white balustrades of the porch like a primordial snake choking its prey. As we walked further, we trudged through drifts of fallen leaves and avoided bushes that had long since overgrown into the path. It was obvious the only major work that had been done in years was the addition of the iron bars that covered the first-floor windows, which had been hastily affixed to the frames.

Arnold led me around the side of the house, and I wordlessly followed, approaching the side door that led to the kitchen. From the same keyring, he selected another key and turned it within the lock of the side door. He entered and lit a lamp, and as I followed, I immediately was struck by the sheer amount of clutter in the small room we entered. Of course, the room I remember being here was much larger, but the mountains of items that filled every possible nook and cranny caused the space to shrink considerably.

Piled to the ceilings were stacks upon stacks of books and newspapers, canvases and frames, and all other manner of junk that I could barely discern in the dim light. Arnold, seemingly forgetting my presence, started to unload his cart, which I now saw contained canned foodstuffs, newspapers, books, paintbrushes, and canvases. He stacked these items in cupboards and in small piles in the filthy kitchen as I silently marveled at the warren of detritus they had managed to accumulate. Looking through the doorway into the next room, the same pattern of stacks of junk seemed to continue throughout the house, or at least as far as the light from the kitchen would reach.

I wanted to say something to Arnold, but no words came to me. As I recovered from the shock of seeing this once familiar setting in such a state, he turned to me, arms holding a small bag of paintbrushes, and asked if I would like to come upstairs to see Ben. I nervously replied in the affirmative, partially out of morbid curiosity and partly out of concern. He took a lantern and held it aloft, leading me from the kitchen into what was once the grand foyer of the house, now a network of passages carved through mountains of refuse. I felt as if I were traveling deep into the bowels of the earth, into a cave or a mine, or some cavern that had not seen the light of the sun in millennia. And yet, I could not slow down, for I feared if I left the small circle of light that Arnold provided I would be lost to this labyrinth forever. And thus, we continued, I, Theseus, and he, my Ariadne.

We continued, ascending the wide staircase through the narrow clearing that was now the only route available. Above me I saw the neglected chandelier, adrift in cobwebs. As we reached the top of the stairs and continued down the similarly obstructed hall, I heard a small voice call from one of the upstairs rooms. It was unmistakably Ben, who called for Arnold in a weak and trembling voice. Arnold announced his arrival as we rounded a pile of boxes and entered the large master bedroom.

It was there that I laid eyes on Benjamin Conway. It seemed perhaps that I was the first person other than Arnold to do so in over a decade. He was sitting up in the large bed, his arms clutched in front of him in a strange rigor. The skin on his bare chest was at once too tight and too loose, languishing atop his atrophied muscles. As we entered the room, he lifted his head with great effort and locked eyes with mine. In those eyes I felt a quiet tempest rage. Despite his withered body, his eyes seemed to burn and sparkle with vigor.

I hesitantly said my greetings, and asked if he was alright. As with Arnold, Ben also barely seemed to express any surprise at the fact that I had suddenly returned to their lives after so long away. He greeted me in return, and in a trembling and weak voice explained to me that he was suffering from a type of rheumatism unknown to medical science and he would be better in some time, with diet and rest. Even then, I did not believe him, but I was unsure if he even believed it. Looking at the odd and tense position he was sitting in, I asked if he would feel better lying down. He told me that his muscles had been tensed and pulled by the disease, and he had not been able to lay down in years.

As I puzzled over how to reply to that sad fact, I was distracted by Arnold at the far end of the room, and realized I had yet to take in my surroundings. The moon spilled in from the high windows, bathing the room in a cool dim light. This room, while still quite cluttered, was different than the rest of the house. There was more space to move around, and in that space some easels with canvases were set up, and as we had entered, Arnold had covered them with sheets. I asked Arnold what he had been painting, wondering perhaps if I could connect with him again in the pursuit of art we had once shared. He paused, then told me that his paintings weren’t meant for my eyes.

I was taken aback by this response, and for a moment I searched his weary eyes for some hidden meaning or sign of jest. Reluctantly, I acquiesced and stepped back. I asked if there was anything I could do to help, to ease their suffering even a little. Arnold told me that Ben’s illness was a type of rheumatism that was unknown to medical science, and could only be healed through diet and rest. I pressed further, but he assured me that they had seen numerous medical experts for his condition, and that Arnold saw to his brother’s every want. I reluctantly dropped the topic and made my excuses to leave.

As I said my goodbyes to Ben, I found myself looking into his eyes again. The pale blue eyes I remember from childhood were somehow warped. They were clouded over with milky haze and yet they stared at me with such intensity I could feel some force beyond sight behind them reaching for me, pinning me in place. At that moment I could not move. Every muscle in my body felt frozen - pierced through by needles of ice emanating from the pale blue pools of Ben’s eyes.