It might be a gingham dress. It might be a horse, a cow, or a Harley-Davidson key chain. It might be a hardcover copy of Donald Barthelme's Guilty Pleasures (first printing, 1974). It might be the Moon.
Quickly, now. There's not much time.
It might be a certain box, buried deep in the sands of what was once an oasis, five days' walk east of Petra, that rose-red city half as old as time, containing three coins of no particular value, a tortoiseshell comb that once belonged to a tawny-skinned woman of such beauty that it hushed the very stars, and a note writ on parchment that will crumble to dust in your hands when you try to unfold it. It might be a giraffe.
Oh, do hurry!
It might be a rock, and if it is a rock, that rock might be igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic. If igneous, it could well be quartz or granite. If sedimentary, it could be mudstone or sandstone or slate. If metamorphic, it's anybody's guess. It could well be pink.
It could be a cup residing neglected in the back of your kitchen cupboard, one that is far older than it looks, that is in fact the Holy Grail itself, though the odds are against it. It could be a whelk or a stapler or a tent. It could be a gingham dress—that very gingham dress that your great-great-great-grandmother made with her own two hands when she was only seventeen, so skillfully that as an almost-direct result and leaving out a great many details, you're here today. It could be a boat.
Only seconds left. It might be that small stain on that same gingham dress made when the callow lout who was to become your great-great-great-grandfather spilled cider on it during a pause in the dancing at the hoe-down he only reluctantly went to, and which he dabbed at with his kerchief, trying to lessen the damage and all the while becoming more and more aware of the sweet body underneath until he flushed like a Rhode Island red with embarrassment. For that matter, it might well be that sudden pale look that came over the face of the girl in the gingham dress when with a sudden leap of intuition she divined this youth's thoughts and realized, too, that she felt something akin to them towards him. It might be that small rip in the gingham dress that occurred later that same night when …
It's time, gents. Finish your accounts and clear out.
Well, perhaps we'll never know what it is, and perhaps that's just as well. It is a never-emptied well of possibilities; the more you take from it, the more remains. For every antecedent we can generate, a thousand, a million more swarm forth to take its place. It is as rich and fecund as the cornucopia, that fabulous horn of the goat Amalthea which suckled Zeus, perpetually overflowing with flowers, fruit, and who knows what. It is as full as the world itself, and the collective imaginations of all those who dwell within it.
It is sometimes a pronoun.
© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.