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Barbara Russell

Short Stories
More stories coming soon!

Barbara Russell is a soil biologist, a fancy way to say that she digs in the dirt, looking for bugs. She's specialised in insect biodiversity and population dynamics, and she swears, it's more exciting than it seems. A huge chunk of the job consists in field sampling, which means spending a lot of time into the wild.  She's worked in England, Spain, Italy, Ecuador, Mexico, Germany, The Netherlands, and Canada. Now, she lives and works in Auckland.


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Short Stories

Pavlov's Cat ~~ by Barbara Russell

Pavlov experimented on dogs - with good reason. Boris, Pavlov's Labrador, unlocks the secret of the most difficult beasts to train: cats.

Pavlov's Cat

Pavlov's Cat






The red bulb turns on, casting an eerie halo on the white panel, and I can’t sit still. My tail wiggles as if it had a mind of its own, which is something I’ve always suspected. My paws tap on the shiny tiles of my master’s laboratory—Dr Pavlov’s.


“Are you ready, Boris?” Dr Pavlov asks from the other side of the room.


I give a happy bark. Ready? I’m more than ready.


This little game we play is fabulous and pretty simple. I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve learned it in less than a day. When the bulb turns red, the panel in front of me opens, and a bowl filled with delicious food appears like magic. Last time it was lamb and rice, what will it be now? Sausages?


I inhale, trying to get a sniff, but I don’t catch anything. Anyway, who cares? Whatever it is, I’m sure I’ll love it.


Drool is falling down like rain from my mouth, and Dr Pavlov nods with a smile. My master is happy, I’m a good dog, life is great.


The panel slides open in a painfully slow way. My tail wags faster, and my paws go up and down in a flash. C’mon! I’m starving here. Okay, that’s a bit exaggerated since I had my bowl of kibbles this morning, but my stomach growls and my mouth fills with saliva. I’m so ready for brunch.


The panel inches away, and… nothing appears. I search the floor, sniffing the tiles with my nose. Where’s the bowl? Where is the delicious food? There’s nothing here aside from white stones and a faint smell of bacon that teases me. I tilt my head toward Dr Pavlov. The room where I’m standing has three glass walls, so I have a clear view of the rest of the lab. There must be a mistake here. My mouth doesn’t stop drooling anyway, but my tail loses its swagger. Something is wrong here.


I frown. Dr Pavlov is nodding and smiling even more.


“Excellent!” He scribbles something on his notepad. “When the light turns red, the subject starts drooling even if the reward is missing. My theory about associate involuntary reflexes is correct.”


Huh? What is he talking about? Where’s the food?


“Excellent,” he repeats, showing off his small teeth.


He walks over to a cabinet and takes out a box of biscuits. Now my tail resumes rolling. Biscuits are coming! I would prefer the lamb, but, hey, since when does a Labrador say no to food?


“Come here, Boris.” Dr Pavlov opens the door of the glassy room and offers the biscuit, and I shoot toward him.


See? I’m good with this game. I chomp the biscuits, and some bits fall to the floor. I’ll lick them off later.


Dr Pavlov straightens, scratching his grey beard and adjusting his glasses. “Now, we’ll try with Munshka.” He turns a page in the notebook and writes something on it. “Munshka?” he calls.


Nothing. Munshka doesn’t come. I snort.


Munshka is weird. I know, it’s not a nice thing to say about a fellow pet, but it’s true. She spends hours cleaning herself. I mean, what for? You clean yourself, and after half an hour, you’re dirty again. Sometimes she refuses to eat what Dr Pavlov offers, and most of the time she doesn’t reply when he calls her, which is rude. Oh, and did I mention that she’s a cat? That says it all, right?


“Muuunshka?” Dr Pavlov waves a biscuit, and I drool all over again. I can’t help myself. It’s a Labrador thing.


Munshka strolls inside the lab in her slow, what’s-the-fuss-about gait. Her long white fur and blue eyes make her look pretty, I guess. She yawns, stretches her back, and tilts her ears backward. Why doesn’t she run to the biscuit?


I shift my weight from one paw to another, eager to take the prize myself.


“Would you like a biscuit, my dear?” Dr Pavlov stoops and opens his hand where the biscuit lies.


My nose tickles with the scent of meat and liver… Yum.


Munshka twitches her tail, walks past him, and curls over a cushion. My jaw hangs open. Seriously? What’s wrong with her?


Dr Pavlov sighs and writes in his notebook. Taking her gently in his arm, he puts her inside the room with the bulb light and the glass walls to play the game. Munshka lifts an eyebrow at him, her claws peeping out.


Then Dr Pavlov closes the door of the room and fusses with the box of wonder—the box that contains the bowl of food under the red light. I tremble with anticipation. What is he putting there? Chicken? Turkey?


Munshka starts her usual grooming activity, licking her paws.


The red light turns on. I drool, you can’t blame me. Munshka keeps cleaning herself. The panel opens, and the magnificent scent of roasted turkey hits me like a slap. I’m about to leap forward and dig my muzzle into the wonderful heap of meat and grease, but Dr Pavlov stops me.


“Stay here, Boris. This is Munshka’s turn,” he says.


Munshka’s turn? She doesn’t care, she’s busy cleaning imaginary dirt from her belly.


The bulb flashes red again. Not a muscle stirs in Munshka’s body.


Hey girl! Don’t you like turkey?


Dr Pavlov frowns, his smile disappearing. My master is displeased, and it’s all Munshka’s fault.


An idea strikes me. Maybe we need something stronger. I bark and point to the fridge. Take the bacon! No one sane could refuse that.


Dr Pavlov scratches his beard again and watches the fridge. “Do you think I should change the turkey with something else?”


I bark again. Yes, you should.


Dr Pavlov opens the fridge and rummages in it. I slip my head underneath him and locate the bacon in a nanosecond. I paw at the bag of bacon. This, this!


“All right, let’s see what happens.”


Dr Pavlov discards the turkey—I hope it’ll be my dinner—and opens the bag of bacon. Its salty, greasy flavour wafts in yummy waves into the lab. Needless to say, I’m practically drowning in my own drool.


Munshka can’t resist this. Nope.


The red light switches on. Munshka looks like she couldn’t care less, intent on licking her paws as if her life depends on it. Ha! Just wait and see when the panel opens, and the bacon appears. The sight of the red bulb makes me ravenous. If I were inside the glass room, I would jump on the bacon and finish it before you could say vodka.


Munshka doesn’t flinch. Only once, she lifts her head, blinks, and then resumes her cleaning.


That makes it official: cats aren’t normal.


Dr Pavlov shakes his head and massages the bridge of his nose. “I have to admit defeat. My theory doesn’t work.” He sags into a chair and exhales.


Oh, no. My master can’t be so sad. There must be something I can do to help him.


So I start to watch Munshka. In the next few days I watch her, day and night, day and night, day and… okay, I need a nap now and then and to eat, and I need my daily walks, you know, to do my things. Also, somebody has to carry on the digging project in the garden, that’s important. Not to mention that I have to reply to the neighbour dog’s barking. And what about the ball? When Dr Pavlov throws the ball, I must catch it. But aside from these moments, I keep watching Munshka, and finally I find her weak spot. Yes, cats do have a weakness!


I explain my idea to Dr Pavlov, which isn’t easy. It takes three attempts to understand each other, and judging by the way he shakes his head and scowls at me, he doesn’t think the idea is good. Nevertheless, he follows the plan.


“I must be mad,” he mutters as he prepares the box of wonder and places Munshka in the glass room.


The bulb shines red. Munshka is focused on her tail; her head doesn’t even turn to the red light. I clench my jaws, and my heart flips. I just want to know if my idea is right. Now I understand the tension a scientist feels.


The panel opens, revealing a full basket. The scent of lavender and lilies wafts around the room. Munshka’s eyes narrow as she pivots to the basket. Ha! Her cattitude is changing.


I nibble at my nails. Is it working?


With a “meow,” Munshka leaps forward and dives into the sea of soft, scented blankets in the laundry basket. She rolls and rolls and rolls, purring with her eyes closed.


Dr Pavlov claps his hands, delighted. “My friend, you’re a genius.”


My chest swells with pride.


I, Boris, pet of Dr Pavlov, Labrador almost purebred, has unlocked the cats’ secret.

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~~Published in Issue # 1 of Reader's Abode~~

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