Fiction and Poetry »
Picture by Josh Semans
September 20, 2013
Pavlov’s Best Friend
During his research on conditioned reflexes, Pavlov concocted new surgical techniques that allowed him to study the inner digestive workings of healthy animals over extended periods of time.
I never once doubted the Master when he cut a permanent hole in my abdominal wall, and I would still last for fourteen years. He used to peer through the opening, watched my innards and what they were supposed to do. His fixation sometimes worried me; the lab girls gossiped about how he talked in his sleep, murmured about “the gastrointestinal secretions will dissolve, the gastrointestinal secretions will dissolve –”
The Master could carve my guts as well, if he would only scratch me behind the ears. He never did; his hands were always gloved. I did not know that I was very filthy.
Pavlov discovered that dogs could be conditioned to distinguish between two ringing bells that had similar pitch: one that brought food and one that did not.
That bell again. The ringing earlier was a trick; it was slightly off-key. This one was the real deal. Oh, I knew that the sound of footsteps was next, then the same bland food. Feeding time was routine. I really did not want to salivate, but the Master was salivating for me to salivate, and I should not disappoint him.
I never dreamed that these people would let me go someday, but perhaps, if I were nice enough to do what they expected me to do, then there was a chance out of this kennel, away from these steel bars and tubes and gaskets and valves and locks.
The other dogs also believed the same thing: salivate at the right pitch, please the semi-balding Master.
If the sound of the bells were identical that the dog could not tell them apart, then it would develop a neurotic behavior.
That’s it! That's the correct sound, right? The footsteps—they should be here by now! Wait, another ringing. Yes, that’s the one for food. Salivate. Salivate. Salivate. The Master wants me to salivate. No? The footsteps! Where are the footsteps! My paws are bloody now, although I haven’t been scratching too hard.
There is dust everywhere; I wonder what they are trying to conceal. The other dogs are bashing the wires of their cages. Noses—all bloody, all bloody, all bloody. What good is revenge when you cannot draw blood? What good is revenge when all gods are made of ringing bells? What are these wires for? The patterns make me dizzy. Must salivate. Must salivate. Must salivate. Must salivate. Must salivate. Must salivate. #
Ivan Pavlov won a Nobel Prize in 1904.
The Two-Headed Dog of Vladimir Demikhov
In 1954, I was the first among the twenty two-headed dogs sawed and assembled by the much lauded Vladimir Demikhov.
You could call me a hybrid. That was how one of Dr. Demikhov’s assistants referred to me before he was fired for giving me more food than what was specified in the protocol. He felt sorry for me, I guess. I also knew he wanted to pet me, but such blatant display of affection, especially in the confines of a lab, was not permitted.
Once, he surreptitiously handed me a chunk of meat, then he strategically positioned himself to conceal me eating inside my cage. He pretended to adjust a portion of the tubing suspended on top of my cage. Sweet man. I hope he lives a long, healthy, and happy life. I tore at the meat, a rapturous pork chop, then swallowed fast before anyone would notice and would have gotten the good man in trouble.
Look at me, a German shepherd with a little extra on my side—a grafted head of a puppy, shoulders and front limbs intact. When Dr. Demikhov, with the flourish of a magician sawing a body in half (although this time, he did make the actual sawing) unveiled me in public in what was basically an orchestrated paint-by-the-numbers circus display, the people in that event ooohed and aahed. Oh, they were easy to please. The freak show, yours truly, was made to lap at a bowl of milk so people could watch how the milk exited from—lo and behold—the dissociated neck that came with the puppy head.
You should see the face of the socialite in a satiny red dress. She nearly fainted.
As for the freeloading reporters from the national dailies, you could taste their excitement as they mentally thought up their possible headlines. FREAKY TWO-HEADED DOG UNVEILED! Or DOG WITH TWO HEADS, TRIUMPH OF SCIENCE. Oh, triumph. Do you even know what that word entails and at whose expense it comes with?
Now look at me and imagine being at the mercy of your handlers. Imagine the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel when you die, all your life you run toward that light so you can leave the claustrophobic dark behind. But at the end of that tunnel, you discover that what you believe is white light and redemption is nothing but glass—transparent enough so you can see paradise on the other side, but thick and sturdy enough so you cannot break it. Imagine dying at the hands of your handler, knowing that he had meant for you to die, all the while enjoying the spectacle of making you lap at a bowl of milk not intended to serve as your sustenance. Like being fashioned into a contraption that served no purpose just because someone can.
The new lab assistant was Petra. That was what her name tag said. She seemed to have replaced the lanky lab assistant I was telling you about earlier, the one who showed, to my surprise, an interest in my welfare and who had secretly fed me the juicy pork chop. It was possible that when the security tapes (collected from an early prototype of grainy CCTV made by Siemens AG of Germany) were reviewed, my good man had been caught in an act described in the ten cardinal lab rules poster as “tampering with a test subject is a terminable offense.”
I hope the kind-hearted man was okay. I did not know his name. He did not have a name tag.
It was day 28. And you already know that this is one of those stories where someone, something dies at the end.
I lasted close to day 29. Cause of death: tissue rejection, the same reason for the deaths of the twenty more dogs that came after me. And throughout the course of those twenty deaths, the then Soviet Union rallied behind Dr. Demikhov and touted the country’s preeminence in the medical field.
What was truly fascinating about this ordeal was the clinical and unflinching eye for violence of many of the famous figures that had shaped the sciences. The hybrid-making race was on the moment I was unveiled in spectacular fashion during the 1954 half-circusy, half-scientific exhibition. Each nation then tried to best one another in creating surgically altered animals.
In 1970, a federal-funded experimental surgery by Robert White fused a monkey’s head onto another decapitated monkey’s body. Don’t ask me how I found out the details about the White drama when I supposedly died after 28 days of the surgical debacle in 1954. Sentience is what lingers long after we are physically gone. Besides, there is no such thing as an afterlife. It is an illusion we force onto ourselves. It is just one transparent glass stopper at the end of a farce, a darkened tunnel.
As for Dr. White’s monkey butchery saga, the purpose of which I still could not fathom, it ended with the monkey waking up in its new body, fury shining in its eyes and teeth snapping at our dearest Dr. White of Cleveland, Ohio in the US of A, land of the free and home of the brave. The monkey died after a day and a half. Cause of death: tissue rejection. Oh, Dr. White did not give up. Instead, he looked into a venture involving transplanting human heads. And not surprisingly, he had a volunteer, Craig Vetovitz, a near-quadriplegic.
I, Alpha Space Dog and only passenger of Sputnik 2, is trained to keep my head, paws, and tail inside the spacecraft at all times. I am the first animal launched into orbit and the first animal to be deliberately killed in space.
My real name is Kudryavka, Russian for “little curly,” then they changed it to Laika. I was a stray, and I thought God-Dog finally beamed Its mercy-paw on me when somebody took me from the streets of Moscow, scrubbed me clean, and fed me the tastiest, juiciest meat I ever had in my life.
There were three of us at first, three not-so-lonely but starving strays. They made us do a battery of buoyancy exercises, tabletop jogging, spin routine, the whole nine yards.
At the end of the training period, it was none other than the chief scientist, Dr. Gazenko, who picked me to board the space shuttle. He said I was in tiptop shape. I was also described as quiet, charming, not quarrelsome with the other dogs.
On November 3, 1957, they strapped me inside a snug-tight harness. What’s on my mind that time: I was looking forward to a juicy steak. They always gave me one each time I completed a task. The technician kissed my nose. Another hugged me tightly before strapping me in place inside a small capsule. That hug should have alerted me to what they had in store for me.
The core sustainer failed to automatically disengage from the payload, so I died by extreme overheating a few hours after launch.
In 1957, the Soviet government went all-out with their PR machine and told people that I was euthanized when the oxygen ran out on day six. I would have loved it had they given me poisoned food. That meant I could expire painlessly, while they could still get their readouts—temperature, radiation levels, etc. That would have been a gentler, friendlier way to die. What really happened eventually came out in 2002: excruciating death by boiling the internal organs, which was, unfortunately for me, not instantaneous.
I had my face on a postage stamp. I also got a monument. Have you seen my collectible stamp? I am gazing in the direction of the person who was coaxing me to behave for the camera because I was going to get a steak later. I was looking toward the direction of men. I was looking toward the direction of hope. In one corner, Dr. Gazenko seemed pleased and happy.
I thought I got the window seat, which was exciting. When they sealed the hatch, I could not see anything anymore. There were tiny lights before me. All the lights were strange and red and ominous. In an hour or two, the heat became unbearable. The thermal insulation was coming off. And there I was inside a space capsule without a window, orbiting the earth, slowly being cooked to death.
You should know that there are no speed bumps in zero gravity. Freefall is a wonderful experience, only if you are still alive to enjoy it. Oh, speed bumps would have been most welcome. I remember being in the backseat of a car once. I must have an owner that time. There is a child beside me, and he is giggling. The child’s mother is on the front seat. That’s as far as I can remember before I ended up prowling the farmers markets of Moscow. Speed bumps would have been nice, would have jolted me back to where I could be sitting right beside you—you could be that child or his mother. Inside the car, I remember a woman’s voice intoning, I know, I know. All you do is watch, hide, watch, hide. See that? Is she talking about the anger of the discarded, as it is the only thing in the world that is instantly recognizable? No one can look away from it without being changed. And that’s my kind of anger, the one felt by the discarded, the type of anger that matters the least for many people. When you look at me long enough, you might catch a glimpse of it. Do you feel changed? It’s true that we always grow back into our triumphant stable shapes, where we pose as if to contain something, something with a purpose, something with a will to entertain, to love, to hope. In my memory of being in the backseat of a car with people who appear to be my owners, the woman in the front seat and the small child giggling beside me, something must have happened. I just cannot remember what it is. But I know it is important. One of the child’s fingers is crusty with peanut butter. That stained little finger points out to something outside the car. Outside the moving car, there is so much to see. But there is no one out there to follow or to beckon with an arm that’s not yet fully formed. The child’s mother says, I told you not to touch, I told you not to touch... She may have been talking to me or to the child with the peanut-butter-coated finger. Outside the car, I think I see you. You are body. You are highway. You are bridge. You are water. You are mountain. You are space. You, who summons and aches to refill what has been lost, open your eyes. Look at me...
* The segment “Pavlov’s Best Friend” is a reworked version of a poem that first appeared in Abyss & Apex #27: 3rd Quarter 2008 and was reprinted in The 2009 Rhysling Anthology: The Best Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Poetry of 2008 (Science Fiction Poetry Association, August 2009).