By Angela Townsend

I am covered in eyes. What I shall become has yet to be seen.

The cats lured me to the lens, co-conspirators on my rescue mission. Smartphones were entering their high-res adolescence just as I took a job at an animal sanctuary. It was cheerful timing to join the hordes of newly adequate photographers, and I became an earnest feline paparazza. 

My photos captured the attention of Hawaiian Dave, a donor who smiled at my social media posts. Dave was ex-military. He had picked up a camera in Iraq, but nobody wanted to see what he had seen there. After the army, he had moved to Hawaii, and now he looked carefully through his own lenses. A professional photographer, his words lit my heart like the flash he scolded me against using. 

“You have a gift,” he urged. “You have an eye. Work with the light you’re given.”

Dave returned to the mainland twice a year, and it was high time he visited our sanctuary. Could I set aside a few good hours for him? 

Of course. My hours belonged to my donors, and I could give tours in my sleep. I knew all one hundred cats’ names and aspirations, their opinions of squeeze-poultry and the diagnoses that had delivered them to our door. They were my sibyls and my secret-keepers. I was honored to fundraise for their care.

When he came in, Dave had eyes like volcanoes over a “Life is Good” T-shirt. I had assumed he was coming to see the cats. But Dave was coming to see the way I saw the cats.

“This is for you.” He hulked a box onto my desk.

It was not cat food. I was not prepared for this. I could not form words. 

“Dave, I…no. I can’t.”

It was a Nikon D5100, heavy in my arms.

“It’s done. It’s yours.”

“I can’t.”

“You will. You have an eye.”

“I don’t know.”

“I do. But it comes with one condition.” He set his jaw, flexing a comic underbite. “No more phone photos. Nikon or nothing.”

I placed the strap over my neck and felt the weight. The camera was as unsentimental as Dave. It had its own single-spaced list of conditions. Chief among them would be that I let it tell stories in the first-person. 

“You are up to this.” Dave put out his enormous hand for me to shake. “Deal?”


The next three hours were a blitz of lessons, the two of us wriggling like seals on the floor to capture cat eyes and roving tails. 

“Follow the light.” 

Dave unshuttered secrets in plain sight. How had I never noticed the way the sun kept picking up camp, moving from one solarium to the next as the day drained?

“You have an eye.” He kept his own secrets, snapping away and snapping at me to set up my own shots. “Trust it. Go for it.”

When Dave returned to Oahu, his parting message, all morse-code encouragement, stayed the same. “Good work. Trust your instincts. Stay in manual mode. You have an eye.”

Thus began an unbidden adolescence on the hinge of thirty, high on the scandal of being good at something. I laughed behind the lens and saw the world strung with invitations. Ordinary Thursdays were tie-dyed with dares. I was covered in eyes like an Old Testament angel.

I covered my lens when I left work, leaving the cats to their conferences about what came next. They knew what I could not yet see.

Lurching toward the age of thirty-one, which felt considerably heavier than thirty, I was impatient to be glimpsed. Extreme introversion had failed to manifest a man in my living room, and reluctant online dating had yielded no fewer than eight unfortunate Eddies and two felons. I was the wrong aspect ratio for all of them, too effervescent for the cool, too cozy for the busy. I spent Saturday mornings reading Kierkegaard in public, willing a lover to send me an iced coffee across a crowded room.

I didn’t see Ryan coming.

All white Oxfords and certainty, Ryan arrived with affirmation. He would later tell friends that choosing me was like reaching into a vast cooler of Cokes, only to pull out the one prize Sprite on the first try. I had never seen myself so desired, iridescent and enchanting in his arms. At last, my visions of my future cleared, Eternal Single swapped for Cherished Queen.

But conditions formed like bubbles on the surface. It was important that I watch end-times documentaries with him so I could understand “what’s really going on.” It was not normal that I didn’t eat meat, not even mollusks.  It was not normal that I intended to wait until marriage for intimacy. He would accept this, but I had to remember he was doing me a favor. 

During the week, I followed cats through tunnels, coaxing light and consenting to my subjects settling on my chest like vibrating sofas. I posted photos. Oahu approved. “You have an eye.”

On weekends, we went to stinking bars where Ryan’s acquaintances played extremely violent chords at an extremely high volume for an extremely extended duration. It was not normal that I did not want beers. One bassist’s girlfriend, black Kohl under a platinum beehive, took me in her arms in an embrace that felt like an apology. Her knowing eyes haunted me.

My tutus and oversized hairbows were “a bit much,” so I restricted them to Mondays. Cats chased my ribbons and followed me into dreams. The Nikon strap molded to my neck—“your bony neck,” as Ryan would remind me—and nudged me toward golden hours. Five o’clock cats were vases for sunlight. I did not like to leave them.

Ryan never understood my “little shelter.” He disdained my Master of Divinity from an Ivy League seminary he deemed dangerously liberal. My friends were witchy. He confirmed that, if necessary, I would leave the cat sanctuary for him. He regularly spot-checked my theology to ensure we were “on the same page.”

We weren’t, but I had nearly forgotten how to read.

On Christmas Eve, he gave me a ten-thousand-dollar diamond ring and a copy of How to Read Your Bible. I accepted both. He would not let me call my mother until morning. It was not normal that I was so close to my mother.

On Christmas Day, we went to my parents’ house and announced the news. My mother gave me a diamond paperweight the size of a kitten, but her eyes were afraid. I became violently ill on the ride home and wept in the gas station bathroom.

When I broke up with Ryan, he broke into my apartment. I changed the locks, and my truest witchy friend met him at a diner to return the ring.

I bought new versions of the tutus I had given up. I bought vegan hot dogs that made my entire apartment smell like flatulence. I bought myself a one-day masterclass with a National Geographic photographer. 

I woke one manila Monday with an unbidden mission. It was so clear and confident, I could only accept: I was to locate and photograph every church in the county. Given that ours was a one-Starbucks county where bovines outnumbered humans, I expected a chewable challenge.

There were one hundred and fourteen churches.

This would be my first extra-feline project, and I felt strangely prepared. Dave’s assessment was a characteristic: “Cool. Keep me posted.” 

I began with low-hanging fruit—the Quaker meetinghouse on my block, the Roman Catholic behemoth on the hilltop. I swallowed fat tablets of my checkered ecclesiastical history. I would expect the best with open eyes, letting kindly light fall on apocalypse enthusiasts and procurers of prophecy no less than the merciful mainline. 

I wore wrinkled T-shirts and unflattering jeans, the Nikon my bosom friend and bodyguard. Five churches in, it was the closest experience I’d known to being in love.

I loitered with statues of saints I didn’t know, setting marigolds at their feet. I met multitudes of Marys crushing serpents and apologized for my Protestant shyness. I cried all autumn as golden trees wrote doxologies up spires. I found stained glass in unexpected places and came clean over and over.

One friendly pastor emerged from Baptist clapboard, so warm I didn’t have time to be afraid. “Come back some Sunday!” He had no expectations. “If you get anything good, please send me your photos!” I did. He put them on their website.

Eighty churches in, I interrupted a consistory meeting of white-tailed deer, so many and so valiant that I wondered if it was a visitation.

I crouched to align crossbeams with sunbeams, asking the light for favors. I fell in love with the invisible people who arranged letters on marquees: “FOOD PANTRY EVERY DAY” and “CHURCH FAMILY PIC-NIC!!!” and “WE WILL LOVE YOU WITH ALL THE LOVE WE HAVE TO GIVE.” I fell and fell and fell in love. I had an eye. 

I did not choose this pilgrimage, any more than I had chosen the cat sanctuary. On the hunt to be hunted, convinced a woman’s calling was to be snapshot, I had forgotten to close my lens. Recklessly wide, it let in all the light. Holy and feral, my happiness came unbidden. Not a man, but a life, chose me when I wasn’t paying attention. Love had a larger name than I knew.

A hundred churches in, the seer became the seen. I did not imagine the horn honked for me, but the man’s voice left no debate. “AWWWH YEAH!” a beastling in a backwards baseball cap oozed out of a Hyundai. “I WANNA TAKE A PICTURE OF YOU!”

In another time, I would have been flattered. I had been the girl unseen, asking animals if I was pretty. Now, I wanted to unleash a hundred feral cats at this man in his Metallica T-shirt. Did he know what I saw?

I saw one hundred and fourteen churches, one hundred cats, and a tutu-clad cat sanctuary fundraiser with a Master of Divinity. 

I follow light without conditions.

I will not give up the sanctuary.

I will not close the lens again. 

I have an eye. 

About the author

Angela Townsend is the Development Director at Tabby’s Place: a Cat Sanctuary, where she bears witness to mercy for all beings. She graduated from Princeton Seminary and Vassar College. Her work appears in Braided Way, Cagibi, Hawaii Pacific Review, The Razor, and The Spotlong Review, among others. Angie has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 33 years, laughs with her poet mother every morning, and loves life affectionately. She lives just outside Philadelphia with two shaggy comets disguised as cats.

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