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Deep Rivers

"You believe people can trust each other, just as you believe one-eyed diabetic cats can be adopted.'

Published onApr 21, 2024
Deep Rivers

Photo by Matteo Petralli:

If you work at a cat shelter, you will cry. You may be the toughest feral who ever gnawed leather. You may be a flannel anarchist who spray-paints the words “eating animals” on STOP signs. You may be a failed pastor whose Master of Divinity gets a laugh in this particular sanctuary.

However you got here, they will get you. They will leap from the floor to your shoulder and knock you down. They will leave you blubbering like the old child you warned to remain silent under your solar plexus. These emotions of yours will get distemper, and you will never find the vaccine.

They may come on looseleaf affixed to a $25 check: “I repaired your washing machine.” That man told you, with his head in the tub, that he was “not a cat guy.” He snorted at the great wall of blankets and towels. He extended a hand to the diapered tabby in the lobby. Brown nose met greasy finger. You witnessed creation. The man with hammers became the boy with a secret. “Cute little nugget, that one.”

They may come when a one-eyed seer snorts prophecies into your forearm. You have been assigned an office mate with a mane like 1980s Tina Turner and a single green eye. The cat Rowena has no respect for your responsibilities. She has no memory of your back-story. She is present. She will drool on your sweater and let you wet her back with tears.

They will come when Leo’s email comes. He does not acknowledge the irony of his name. He has urgent concerns. He is bringing his bride to visit. Victoria has “some minor cognitive decline. Most likely, you won’t notice. But if she asks you the same question a few times, I ask that you be patient.”

Leo knows you as the lady who sends acknowledgment letters. “You make us feel thirty feet tall.” There is much Leo doesn’t know. This was not the sanctuary you intended. The robes didn’t fit, and the degree sounded ludicrous. Your congregation consists of cats like Rowena and curmudgeons who send $25 checks.

Leo loves Victoria. You still wear a bandage from love’s bayonet. You believe people can trust each other, just as you believe one-eyed diabetic cats can be adopted. You believe eternity can incarnate anywhere it wishes. You have only lived one life, and you have it on good authority that there are others. When you cry, Rowena does not tell.

Your friends at the shelter are tendons and earth. Their sentiments belong to the speechless. They speak in body language. They are the most trustworthy people you know. They flood the plain with torrential tears for cats. They squeeze your shoulder when you get all milky over donors. You are too punctured by people. Your friends tell you that they trust no one. They are the only people you trust at all, some days as much as forty-nine percent.

Your friends are busy when Leo and Victoria arrive. They have ceased to look up when weepy people hug you. They know you write to widows and repairmen. They know you did not plan for cats.

Leo and Victoria are holding hands, and Victoria is the most beautiful woman you have seen. Her hair is the color of tangerines. Her sweatshirt reads “Blessed.” Did Leo tell you they have been married forty-eight years?

You begin giving a tour, but your spiel unspools. Did Leo tell you they have rescued over fifty cats in forty-eight years? They worked at the train station, in the office. No, Leo didn’t have a conductor’s hat, but wouldn’t that have been cute?

You try not to cry. You have never seen a hand inside another like Victoria’s inside Leo’s. You don’t know if your parents held hands, your father’s mittens around your mother’s piano fingers. If they did, you did not see.

Victoria is present. Did Leo mention that, across from the train station, there was a cheese factory? This is the point at which you giggle, and Victoria giggles, and you confirm that she is not about to pull your tail. You tell her that you write the blog here, and this story is about to write itself. You tell her that the cats are concocting a field trip.

Victoria reads the blog. Didn’t Leo tell you that they read the blog every morning? Where do you get all those ideas? How do you write about cats as though they are people?

You mumble something, but Victoria already knows. She is back at the cheese factory. So, the first terrible thing about the cheese factory is this. They used to pour by-products into a ditch in front of the building. Isn’t that irresponsible?

Leo’s nose is so red that he can’t contain himself. “A wide, wide river of whey!” he erupts, and Victoria shrieks. If they were holding hands before, that was nothing compared to now.

You try not to cry. You insist they are pulling your tail. You insist every cat is listening.

Leo puts his arm around Victoria while still holding her hand. If they do not hold onto each other, they will fall down. You are going to cry.

So, the second terrible thing about the cheese factory is this. People got wind of the river of whey, and they started dumping cats. How do people live with themselves? How do they walk around with hearts of stone?

You start talking, which is what you do when you do not want to cry. You suggest that instead of being angry with people, we should feel mercy – you do not say “pray for them.” We should weep for people immune to pity.

Leo’s eyes fill with tears. Victoria is not angry. Those dumpers were just a bunch of lost souls. Downstream, Leo and Victoria had work to do. Leo and Victoria emptied their garage and made a sanctuary for the cheese refugees. They named it “The Beastro.” They built jungle gyms and feeding stations. Leo made huts for the scared ones. Do you think cats can have PTSD? Did Leo tell you that they saved fifty cats over forty-eight years?

You stop trying not to cry. You take Leo’s free hand and Victoria’s free hand, and now you form a circle over a ginger cat who does not know why he has just become the axis mundi.

You tell Leo and Victoria that this world needs people like them. You want to tell them everything. You want them to tell you everything.

Leo’s face ceases abruptly to be pink. He asks Victoria if she is fading. She nods. She has spent it all. This has been a wonderful time. You make them promise to come back. You make them promise it will be soon. You remember the names of their remaining cats and request the distribution of your kisses.

They have rescued fifty cats in forty-eight years. You go into the laundry room to cry. You have only lived one life.

Angela Townsend is the Development Director at Tabby’s Place: a Cat Sanctuary. She graduated from Princeton Seminary and Vassar College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Chautauqua, Paris Lit Up, The Penn Review, The Razor, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and The Westchester Review, among others. She is a 2023 Best Spiritual Literature nominee. Angie has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 33 years, laughs with her poet mother every morning, and loves life affectionately.

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