in the French, means Worsen, though you hear “ample.” You think of umpires and empirical evidence. Your teacher settles the dispute: “Dispersed states and unrelated peoples under one rule” is not e pluribus unum. Worsen sounds like vasen, vapors, like Florida, which is, like your body, mostly water and salt, and somewhere in all that water an empire is waiting to happen, an amplitude electric, or magnetic, of some current pushing the past along some shore toward its destiny.
Early spring down at our lake, the infant toads erupted onto land with their crooked new legs, putty-colored, sand-colored, tiny cinnamon shavings the size of your pinky-nail, fifty, sixty, some would get away while you were collecting the others into the gallon jar, you could never be sure how many. It’s as good as an encyclopedia! A book of maps! The tiniest zoo! You will keep them safe. You will feed them corn flakes and honey. Pax Amphibiana! Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me, and in the morning there’s a crowd of little sleepers—Beautiful, you whisper, and one small face rises toward you, tiny digits pressed on the glass to hear the good word.
Years later, your birthmother sends a letter through the Children’s Home Society where Methodists liked to leave their babies. Like Vaseline, they’d rub on the love, they’d lotion your legs with prayers and hold you up to the weather outside the window. She tells you Crazy Horse is an ancestor. Crazy Horse! you think, blinking away the blonde hair and freckles, well that’s just crazy. She encloses a photograph of your yellow-haired cousin, whose mother is a full blood Yosemite, and you think, hmm.
Now it makes sense, how you come between yourself and the things you want, which are crooked and can’t be mapped. You feel your bloodlines snake out like kudzu in all directions. You lie awake at night because if you sleep your soul will disappear into the hands of the ones who love you. One summer you go back to the lake and are disappointed. How small it seems! In its greeny-brown dirt with its islands of weeds like the back of a dead toad.
The phone rings. One of your students wants to know how you can write about things you don’t know, such as your own past life, and you tell him the origin of history lies in the way we talk about things we only think happened, using the facts we have. Evidence, you tell him. Herodotus didn’t have much, but he was good at making the most of it. Then there’s the story of Crazy Horse, you say, which we only know parts of but mostly guess. For example, here I am, one of his blonde descendants. But I don’t know whose descendant I am, says the student.