At high tide the water spewed against the toothy outcrops and matted scrubs of the low cliff around the inlet, and not for the first time the General was reminded of a huge serrated blade, the kind you’d use to cut bread. He’d taken to walking the shore in full regalia, now defunct, all epaulets and medals and little brass clasps embossed with some Latin phrase or another. He couldn’t keep them all straight anymore. The men in the garrison looked at him with the kind of pity you’d reserve for the ancient and the insane, but he wore it anyway, the regalia, sometimes baking under the woolen weight of his uniform, sodden with ocean spray that salted the patchy beard he’d let root on his cheeks these last years.
In the first days of exile he’d worn his regalia because he wanted to be ready. If his supporters came for him, or he found a way of escape, well, you wanted a full-splendor thing going on, a sense that you hadn’t diminished, that you could still fit, so to speak, into your boots. But no one had come, and the years had gone by, and in fact he had diminished. Meaning that incident a year ago or more with the collapsed vertebrae, when they’d got some renowned Welsh surgeon to come out and inflate a balloon in his spine, or so he understood. Though the procedure alleviated his crushing pain and enabled him to walk, he came out of it two full humiliating inches down. So he supposed the question of the regalia was now one of habit, of long-ingrained decorum. All that was left was schedule and routine and ceremony.
The rocks bit his booted feet and he steadied himself against the hickory cane. It was unusually nippy, but he was sweating anyway, and his left heel felt like it had grown an extra tarsal. His insignias jangled as he went. Waves crashed the time. Clouds scudded sunward. He’d been in the habit of trying to raise his head when he walked, but it was so difficult on uneven ground that he’d learned to bow, eyes always on the shoes. Even so they were almost crinkled shut from the force of the wind, which of course never stopped blowing. The kind of wind that leaves your eyeballs dune-dry.
The trail on the scarp looped a little over four miles along the shoreline and back into the forest with its tangled growth and wide-fronded trees before cutting up a steep slope to Breton House, all pressed between ocean and the long-dormant volcano in the middle of the island. Coming back around the loop to approach the house, he always felt some mixture of bitterness and relief. Can a home really be home if you don’t choose it? But of course it can; children don’t choose their homes. Maybe it was that you had to resent being treated like a child—despite the renowned intellect and power he wasn’t sure he possessed anymore, or ever did.
Breton House was less a house than a mansion, all wide entryway with its huge green latticework and whitewashed double doors. A low stone wall crept around the grounds and the path was lined by agapanthus. One of his attendants did most of the garden-tending, although the General had more than once come out to prune some of the bushes around the sides of the house or pick mangoes from the rear orchard, and had always thought of it as a decent way to pass the time, which of course was what mattered.
The flag of his country was raised on the grounds beside the flag of the country which had taken him captive. Flailing in the wind, they looked like the same flag, only with the colors all jumbled up.