If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love

Hugo Award finalist, Nebula Award winner, World Fantasy Award finalist

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Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop and graduated from Clarion West in 2005. Her short fiction has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Tor.com, Clarkesworld, and Subterranean Magazine, and been nominated for a number of awards, including the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the World Fantasy Award. In 2010, her novella The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window won the Nebula Award. As a kid, she watched too much Fairy Tale Theatre and memorized the score to Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
By Rachel Swirsky | Narrated by Lynne M. Thomas

If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex. You’d be a small one, only five feet, ten inches, the same height as human-you. You’d be fragile-boned and you’d walk with as delicate and polite a gait as you could manage on massive talons. Your eyes would gaze gently from beneath your bony brow-ridge.

If you were a T-Rex, then I would become a zookeeper so that I could spend all my time with you. I’d bring you raw chickens and live goats. I’d watch the gore shining on your teeth. I’d make my bed on the floor of your cage, in the moist dirt, cushioned by leaves. When you couldn’t sleep, I’d sing you lullabies.

If I sang you lullabies, I’d soon notice how quickly you picked up music. You’d harmonize with me, your rough, vibrating voice a strange counterpoint to mine. When you thought I was asleep, you’d cry unrequited love songs into the night.

If you sang unrequited love songs, I’d take you on tour. We’d go to Broadway. You’d stand onstage, talons digging into the floorboards. Audiences would weep at the melancholic beauty of your singing.

If audiences wept at the melancholic beauty of your singing, they’d rally to fund new research into reviving extinct species. Money would flood into scientific institutions. Biologists would reverse engineer chickens until they could discover how to give them jaws with teeth. Paleontologists would mine ancient fossils for traces of collagen. Geneticists would figure out how to build a dinosaur from nothing by discovering exactly what DNA sequences code everything about a creature, from the size of its pupils to what enables a brain to contemplate a sunset. They’d work until they’d built you a mate.

If they built you a mate, I’d stand as the best woman at your wedding. I’d watch awkwardly in green chiffon that made me look sallow, as I listened to your vows. I’d be jealous, of course, and also sad, because I want to marry you. Still, I’d know that it was for the best that you marry another creature like yourself, one that shares your body and bone and genetic template. I’d stare at the two of you standing together by the altar and I’d love you even more than I do now. My soul would feel light because I’d know that you and I had made something new in the world and at the same time revived something very old. I would be borrowed, too, because I’d be borrowing your happiness. All I’d need would be something blue.

If all I needed was something blue, I’d run across the church, heels clicking on the marble, until I reached a vase by the front pew. I’d pull out a hydrangea the shade of the sky and press it against my heart and my heart would beat like a flower. I’d bloom. My happiness would become petals. Green chiffon would turn into leaves. My legs would be pale stems, my hair delicate pistils. From my throat, bees would drink exotic nectars. I would astonish everyone assembled, the biologists and the paleontologists and the geneticists, the reporters and the rubberneckers and the music aficionados, all those people who—deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs– believed that they lived in a science fictional world when really they lived in a world of magic where anything was possible.

If we lived in a world of magic where anything was possible, then you would be a dinosaur, my love. You’d be a creature of courage and strength but also gentleness. Your claws and fangs would intimidate your foes effortlessly. Whereas you—fragile, lovely, human you—must rely on wits and charm.

A T-Rex, even a small one, would never have to stand against five blustering men soaked in gin and malice. A T-Rex would bare its fangs and they would cower. They’d hide beneath the tables instead of knocking them over. They’d grasp each other for comfort instead of seizing the pool cues with which they beat you, calling you a fag, a towel-head, a shemale, a sissy, a spic, every epithet they could think of, regardless of whether it had anything to do with you or not, shouting and shouting as you slid to the floor in the slick of your own blood.

If you were a dinosaur, my love, I’d teach you the scents of those men. I’d lead you to them quietly, oh so quietly. Still, they would see you. They’d run. Your nostrils would flare as you inhaled the night and then, with the suddenness of a predator, you’d strike. I’d watch as you decanted their lives—the flood of red; the spill of glistening, coiled things—and I’d laugh, laugh, laugh.

If I laughed, laughed, laughed, I’d eventually feel guilty. I’d promise never to do something like that again. I’d avert my eyes from the newspapers when they showed photographs of the men’s tearful widows and fatherless children, just as they must avert their eyes from the newspapers that show my face. How reporters adore my face, the face of the paleontologist’s fiancée with her half-planned wedding, bouquets of hydrangeas already ordered, green chiffon bridesmaid dresses already picked out. The paleontologist’s fiancée who waits by the bedside of a man who will probably never wake.

If you were a dinosaur, my love, then nothing could break you, and if nothing could break you, then nothing could break me. I would bloom into the most beautiful flower. I would stretch joyfully toward the sun. I’d trust in your teeth and talons to keep you/me/us safe now and forever from the scratch of chalk on pool cues, and the scuff of the nurses’ shoes in the hospital corridor, and the stuttering of my broken heart.

© Rachel Swirsky


  1. Rebecca Roland

    Lovely, lovely, lovely.

    • Paul

      Y’all some weak people this story is not even sad come on now

      • Lily K

        This story is upsetting to certain people. Maybe you might not find it sad, and someone else might agree with you, but we all have different perspectives of the world and how we see things on a daily basis.

  2. Angelabsurdist

    A beautiful story of love.

  3. Antoinette Bergin

    Wow. Just WOW.

  4. Marguerite Reed

    Well, she knocked this one out of the park, didn’t she!

  5. Ericka Harper

    Riveting and beautiful…I could not stop reading. Your flow was effortless and smooth. You communicated a really lovely combination of emotion and defiance.

  6. Michelle Heitman

    I…I have no words….magnificent.

  7. Chris Furst

    What a terrific story, Rachel!

  8. Noel Velasco

    I couldn’t read past the first two sentenses.

    • Cee

      Why? You really should. It is magnificently beautiful.

      • derfel cadarn

        Beautiful is not the word I would choose, disturbed is far closer to the mark.

        • Solaratov

          “…far closer…”?

        • Solaratov

          “…far closer…”? Hmmm.

      • David Livingstone

        “Disturbed.” Says Derfel.

        Gotcha. Next….

    • Basir

      The worst kind of story I can think of. It’s childish. How could it win an award?

      • JustStatestheObvious

        Because it captures grief.

        And because those with a damaged empathy never fail to reveal themselves when they read it. It’s like our little canary in a coal mine, giving us a fair warning.

      • JumboDS64

        I feel like the childishness of it is intentional. Near the end, you have the *childish* “I’M GONNA KILL THEM!!!!” response to violence, followed by realizing the ethical impact of such.

  9. Teresa Noelle Roberts

    Glorious, poetic, moving.

  10. Nathanielwms

    Fantastic story!

  11. Katherine Sparrow

    Loved this. Loved this. Loved this.

  12. Kate Baker

    Oh Rachel,

    This was amazing. Thank you for such strong and beautiful imagery.

  13. K Köhler

    Oh, that was devastatingly beautiful. Thank you.

  14. A3

    Wow. This was wonderful. Thank you!

  15. Merc

    Gorgeous and so sad–a wonderful story, thank you.

  16. James W. Crissman

    Just gorgeous. And great right brain/left brain imagination — the science was strong. Am currently working on a dream story and am stuck in plot clay. This may have helped at some subliminal level. Loved it!

  17. Addison Smith

    I’ve come back to this story at least ten times since it was published. Just wanted to say, “Well done.”

  18. John Thiel

    Well-written and written with artistry, but I don’t like what it says. I suppose we can expect that from works of writing. I don’t like what Dostoyevsky’s stories say either.

    • Jim

      Seriously? “…works of writing”? I would say get a clue, but I’m quite sure you wouldn’t recognize one.

      • John Thiel

        Well, clues aren’t anything a person is expected to recognize.

  19. Shane Olney

    I have done a lot of reading in the past few months as I try to pursue my own writing career. I was reading so much because I wanted to find out what made a story worthy of a Nebula. I think I’ve found it. This story is…well, award worthy.

  20. Arley Sorg

    Surprising, touching and wonderful. A gentle lure before a hard squeeze on the heart.

  21. Jonathan

    Wonderful prose and a good, creative, unusual story. Congratulations on your Hugo nomination.

  22. adam

    whatever its an alright story. but a hugo and nebula award nomination? nonsense. asimov is rolling in his grave.

    • David Livingstone

      He can roll all he likes, so long as he stays there.

  23. Cathy

    Wow – It’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, only for grown-ups. Great story!

    • Emily

      I was thinking that it is like The Runaway Bunny for grown-ups! In any event, a delightful, lyrical story.

    • JumboDS64

      lol that’s basically what i thought too

  24. Gilberto Quintero

    Congratulations to Rachel Swirsky for the deserved Nebula Award. It’s a great story!

  25. Teresa Coffey

    Beautiful and haunting. One of those stories that leave me wishing I had written it. Rachel Swirsky, Congratulations on winning the Nebula. It is well deserved!

  26. Ted

    It’s an okay story, but it’s utterly mundane. This is not speculative fiction, as hard as it tries to make us think so. This does not deserve to be called the best short story the field can produce.

    • delagar

      An amazing story. Congratulations on your win!

    • BaguetteDuSorcier

      This is 100% a speculative fiction story. It is told in the conditional tense, but that doesn’t ban it from the genre–if anything, that heightens its “speculative” tone.

  27. Jeremy Szal

    One of the most unconventional stories I have ever read, and one that pays off with infinite rewards. It’s not a story for me, but I don’t care: it’s awesome and you should be proud of it.

  28. Stuart

    Ignore the Philistines and the trolls, milady Swirsky. You have given us a moving, quirky, poetic, heart-wrenching, loving story. Best of luck, both in the awards process and in all of your writings!

  29. Danny Sichel

    This is very, very well-written. It is a work of art, it shows excellent mastery of the writer’s craft, and I commend you, Ms Swirsky, for your accomplishment. But I very much don’t like it.

    For those pondering whether it truly counts as SF, consider this: it is a metafictional story. The person telling us an SF story is not Rachel Swirsky, it is the unnamed fiancee of the brutalized paleontologist.

    Perhaps that’s why I don’t like it. The inner narrative is joyously strange and exuberantly weird, but the frame story is mundane and tragic and brutal and sad and mournful and viciously, heartbreakingly ordinary.

    Defying the literary standards at such a fundamental level can produce remarkable, memorable work; I’m reminded of Tom Godwin’s “the Cold Equations”, for instance, or Elizabeth Hand’s “the Maiden Flight of McCauley’s [i]Bellerophon[/i]”. People are still angry about “Equations” over fifty years later, and it took me over a year to properly understand what Hand was doing with “Flight”. But both of those are undeniably SF. Here, that’s not really the case: the distancing effect of metafiction leaves us, ultimately, in Stein’s Oakland.

  30. Mark McLemore

    Nebula Award Winner and, thus far, Hugo Award Nominee. Well done, friend. Write on.

  31. Lady

    I’m melancholy tonight, too much prose in my life. I didn’t know I was thirsting for poetry until I read your story. Thanks and congratulations on your award.

  32. mchamma

    A deeply compelling story found from Escape Pod. You should have won the hugo award for this odd but powerful and touching piece. Thank you for inspiring me.

  33. Jayant Lagu

    Is it a story or poem? Beautiful!

  34. Bill the Butcher

    I loved every word of this. I was awed and, I dare even say, humbled by your writing. If I could give it an award I’d do so. All I can say is, I wish I’d written it. And that, coming from me, is the highest praise I can bestow.


  35. Jon Bromfield

    I never cease to be amazed by this story.

  36. Mike

    Wow, that was devastating.

  37. Doubting Rich

    Wow, such bigotry in a story. Such ignorant fear of the unknown, of the working people you have never deigned to speak to, so never understood outside the arrogant prejudices of the “educated” left. Sarah Hoyt (a far better writer) was quite right about this nasty, childish little tale.

    By the way, I am a graduate of an older, better-known university than any of those commenting here attended, ironically in Earth Sciences which includes palaeobiology, but one who has worked with and made friends of more working men and women than academics or writers. None has ever so much as commented negatively upon my education except in positive terms, nor on anyone else’s skin colour or background. The only bigotry I ever see is from the educated people, especially the socialists.

    • Trevor Curtis

      I think the assumptions by some of the more libertarian bent people like Hoyt are hilarious about this story. They assume that the description of “gin soaked ” and “brandishing pool cues” is somehow an attack by the writer on working class people. That implies that working class normal people are drunks,play pool and are bigots. Trust me when I say that is utterly untrue. Rich people are also drunks, pool players and bigots.So if you assume that from reading it, what does that about your own assumptions. I also love that the people who are decrying this as ignorant are showing their own ignorance in their assumptions.

      • Mary Finn

        I’m a “working class” woman. And, I make no assumption that this story vilifies working class people at all. When I read it, I wondered if it was based on a real incident. I couldn’t help but notice the specificity.

    • Danny Sichel

      Doubting Rich, just out of curiosity, how do you know what universities the other commenters attended? I’m asking since you said that your university was better than theirs.

      • Danny Sichel

        correction on my part, you said “older, better-known”, you did not say “better”. My mistake.

  38. MassJim

    After reading this story and the comments I await the child proclaiming that the emperor has no clothes.

    • Smokin' Joe

      Not only is the emperor nude, but this “story” stinks!

      • David Livingstone

        The quality of the negative replies tells you everything you need to know about the merits of the story.

        None of the naysayers seems capable of coherent thought, much less quality writing.

  39. Thomas

    The funny thing is that if you change those five blustering gin-soaked pool players into demographic profiles more reflective of who is relatively most likely to beat someone senseless….

    ….then this story stops being funny at all, and starts being hate speech.

    Funny how that works — how whether revenge-murder porn is just that, or Art, or something worse, depends chiefly on whose gory death is being fantasized.

    • Mack

      Are you kidding me?? Hate speech against whom?! Can you take a moment to appreciate the forest before rebuking a single shrub? Criminy, what an oversensitive crowd!

      • Daniel

        I don’t mean to speak for him, but the meaning I took is that if the antagonists in this story were minorities from an urban area, the reaction would be very different.

        • Danny in Canada

          … who says they weren’t?

  40. Shifty Bitwise

    Drivel. Neither science fiction NOR a story. “If you give a mouse a cookie” was more riveting and had the added advantage of having beautifully rendered pictures that catered to my apparently slavish tastes in literature. It is a good thing Ms Swirsky was blessed with an XX Chromosome otherwise this drek would not get a second glance.

    Heinlein wept.

    • Danny Sichel

      Think about this. It’s a story about a woman telling herself a science fiction story.

      It’s not science fiction, it’s science fiction fiction. In the same way that “Misery” isn’t a romance novel, but is a novel about romance novels.

      For those of you who say that the narrator is disturbed – perhaps that’s supposed to be the point? She’s emotionally shattered, after all.

      • Shifty Bitwise

        Now you are in “Inception” territory mate. That was rubbish as well.

        This is a comment about a comment about yet another comment.

        A woman was walking down the street with her young child. Up ahead she sees a black man walking toward her. This young woman has never actually spoken to a black person, let alone had any meaningful interaction. The woman has a vivid premonition that the man has raped her and hooked her child on crack. Pulling the child by the shirt collar, she crosses the street and ducks into a grocery. Safe.

        Simple. Assuming. Biased. Lacking in theme, character arc and denouement.

        Send my award check to :

        Shifty Bitwise
        1249 Tripp Ave
        Chicago Il, 60623

        • Danny Sichel

          meh, it’s derivative of Rachel Swirsky, and your imagery isn’t SFnal enough. Maybe if the woman imagined that the man was an alien who would abduct her?

          Also, there’s no cash prize involved, just the block of lucite.

  41. Solaratov

    I came prepared not to care for the story…and was pleasantly surprised. It was quite beautifully done. I’m glad, though, that it was a short short story.

    Thank you.

    • SpaceCaptainSmith

      That wasn’t a review, it was Twitter snark.

      • bivket

        “That wasn’t a review, it was Twitter snark.”

        And a well written and entirely correct one.

        The one good thing about this horrid tripe of a story is that it’s one of the things that gave us “Sad Puppies”.

        I suppose the world should at least be thankful for that.

  42. David Livingstone

    A magnificent story. Nearly perfect, I’d say.

  43. David Davidson

    Reading stories like this discourage me from pursuing my own interest as a writer.

    If everyone else thought about my stories the way I feel about yours, I would be so ashamed.

    • Joe Iriarte

      What a bizarre comment. The existence of stories you don’t like discourages you from being a writer? Wow.

      Luckily for Ms. Swirsky, “everyone else” *doesn’t* feel about her story the way you do.

      • rastronomicals

        Meh. Just meh.

        Something horrible happened, yet the author managed to decouple the event (through poor choice of the kids’ poetry device) from its horror, and the perpetrators (through tired stereotype) from the visceral feeling you should have for them.

        Have no familiarity with the genesis of the story/poem whatever–whether this event really happened, or if details were changed in the telling–but it doesn’t really matter.

        I read and I rebel, because things are rarely this cut and dried, rarely as simple as they are portrayed here, like this person, hate those, these are the good guys, those are the bad: I can get easy simple polarized views at any particular biased news outlet of my choice, and this is junk, no offense to anybody who may or may not have been hurt in any inspiring incident that may or may not have occurred. Of course.

  44. Sophia Wells

    This so perfectly tells the story of Reginald Denny. Thank you!

  45. Roberta X

    I came to this having been primed to find drek.

    This yarn is not drek. It’s gold. Very well-written and moving.

    I’m not sure what the negative commenters are seeing when they picture “five blustering men soaked in gin and malice” who beat up an apparently fragile-looking palentologist but I suspect it’s got more to do with their own preconceptions and with whom in the story they are identifying than what the words say.

  46. ps

    Really? This is SciFi? Has anyone on this comment board ever actually read SciFi? Clearly SciFi has evolved into the same pointless dross as modern art – a minimum amount of effort on the part of the artist looking for the maximum return. Please go away. far away. Far, far away from the SciFi genre. From any genre. Just go.

    • JumboDS64

      yeah, i agree that this isn’t actually sci-fi. it’s an interesting story but, as another commenter pointed out, it’s science fiction fiction; the real story is the narrator’s, which is firmly grounded in reality.

  47. ctk

    wow. this is not science fiction. this is a fever dream of a woman who has issues. and even then it does not qualify as science fiction but as fantasy. there is no science central to this prose that holds this thing up, and without the science as a backbone it ain’t science fiction. how in the hell did this ever get nominated let alone win anything?

    i think i could write an actual scifi story and i haven’t taken any sort of writing class since i was in high school over 10 years ago.

  48. Sexton

    I first read this story when it was nominated for a Hugo. I remember thinking it was beautifully written, but I struggled wtih seeing it as SF. Reading it again now, I have no problem seeing it as speculative fiction, and I agree with BaguetteDuSorcier’s comment. My idea of what makes something SFnal has broadened over the past couple of years by reading diverse works that treat SF in different ways. I’m so happy to get something more–something richer for my mind–out of this story now.

  49. Jim Datsun

    Wow…. you’re a twisted person.
    Terrible story, by the way.

  50. Loree

    These pieces really set a standard in the inrsutdy.

  51. Jordan S. Bassior

    If you gave the Haydens a cookie, they’d expect to control the Hugos EVERY year.

    • Danny in Canada

      you misspelled “puppies”.

      (hey, jordan. LTNS.)

  52. Daniel

    It’s not as bad as the detractors say it is, but it’s a blatant Mary-Sue revenge fantasy. It doesn’t deserve the accolades.

    • CN

      I thought the end made the story work.

  53. Sandra Martinez

    I have a few issues with this poem, two specifically. I found the beginning of the poem in the same vein (if not derivative) of a children’s book titled “I Love You Stinky Face”. In said book, a mother consoles her child through several hypotheticals where her son is some sort of animal/creature. A dinosaur is one of the animals and the creativity between the two is about the same. Albeit, with the children’s book releasing 10 years earlier.

    Secondly, I’m having a hard time properly categorizing this as science fiction. Yes, a dinosaur is a unique and a “new” biological organism (depending on it’s inception to this story), but this story hardly depends on this new creature. The title could be altered to “If you were a man with a gun” or “If you had four other friends at the bar last night” and the main idea of “if her fiance were a more intimidating and violent force” would remain the same.

    That being said, I did enjoy the sudden gut-punch of the trauma at the bar, and some of the hypotheticals, in the beginning, were interesting to explore. However, these are hypotheticals I’ve already read before, and though they are made more interesting by the implementation of a dinosaur as a character: I do not personally believe the existence of a dinosaur in a story to be a legitimate enough reason for it to be categorically science fiction.

  54. kathorine13

    The grief, the sadness, the longing for what could be but what can’t be at the same time, the acceptance and defiance in these lines:

    “If they built you a mate, I’d stand as the best woman at your wedding. I’d watch awkwardly in green chiffon that made me look sallow, as I listened to your vows. I’d be jealous, of course, and also sad, because I want to marry you. Still, I’d know that it was for the best that you marry another creature like yourself, one that shares your body and bone and genetic template. I’d stare at the two of you standing together by the altar and I’d love you even more than I do now.”

    I’ve read this last 2018 and it made me feel the sadness. It’s 2021 now and my heart still feels heavy after reading this.

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