Touch

By Chef SilverMetal

Out of all the organs in the human body, the skin is the most sensitive. It envelops all of us, a system of tiny hairs and pores and nerves connected to nerves connected to nerves. If our bodies were the same size as the Earth, we would still be able to feel objects as small as cars. Do you realize how powerful that is? If a bug crawls up our arm, we know it. If a person touches us, we definitely know it. Even the smallest collision of our body and a separate object reminds us that it occupies space. To feel something is to know it’s there. You wouldn’t really think about it until someone tells you, you know? But then it makes sense.

When I was a child, my father would often take me hiking after school, high enough on the mountain near my house to see the city lights turn on as mango-colored twilight stained the sky. We would sit on a rock and think about how big everything was, and I decided early on that I loved the outdoors. Hearing the wind in the trees, tasting the dry mountain air – this was the world, and the only way to know it was there, was to truly feel it.

Late one afternoon, as we trekked back home in the increasingly deeper blues of the evening, my father explained to me that each person’s reality is entirely created by their perception of the world. What he saw as blue, might be what I saw as red – and there was no way of knowing, because each person could only know what he saw for himself. And in that same light, what our senses tell our brain is real, IS real, and nothing but our brain can convince itself otherwise. I was fascinated by this idea, to say the least. I realized that if I believed something was real, if I could truly see it, hear it, feel it – who was to say it wasn’t there?

As I grew older, I also found myself taking more hikes by myself. I still preferred the cool of the evening, and I still preferred the world from far away. I had usually dealt with enough of it during the day to convince myself I deserved some time alone. Sometimes it was all too easy to procrastinate my inevitable return to the real world – on one particularly dry evening, I had already found myself three miles up the mountain when the sun began to sink. I sat down on a familiar rock with a view of the city and took a swig from my canteen, as tens of tiny mountain gnats wallowed aimlessly in the sphere of my hiking stink. I swatted them away subconsciously as I took off my shoes and rubbed my socked feet in the dirt. Whatever, I could wash my socks later. Nature felt right.

As I stood up and stretched, my arm brushed against the fingers of a small tree to my side. It tickled a little, and I thought back to my childhood, when everything around me was mine to discover by touch. Things were so easy then. I smiled, and reached out to touch the tree again, but I must have imagined it because I couldn’t seem to find any plant life in my immediate area. I turned around again to see the distant city lights beginning to flicker on. Heading home now would be a good idea.

I walked slowly, and thought of my father’s advice that knowing how to hike downhill could be just as important as knowing how to hike up. The sky turned a familiar deep blue, and my eyes betrayed me once or twice as the light faded, causing me to step on a wobbly rock or slide a little in the dirt. I looked down the cliff at my side and avoided thoughts of vertigo. The trail I knew so well felt more like a stranger than a friend today.

I was a third of the way back down when I felt a gentle pat on my shoulder – not the kind you’d get from a person, or even an animal vying for your attention, but like someone had tried to pat you on the back and given up at the last minute, with only the edge of his finger grazing your skin before he turned around and walked away. Against all instinct, I stopped walking. I ran through a quick list of the animals I had seen in the mountains before. Deer were too timid to approach me. Mountain lions wouldn’t be out this time of year, and I would know if there were bears in the vicinity. I trudged forward again. The sky was getting darker while the city grew brighter in the distance. By this time, my hiker’s high had lost some of its energy, and I started thinking about how much I just wanted to be home.

I was getting lower and lower on the mountain by then, and I hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail for at least an hour. I kept hoping I would see a hiker on their way up, or at least another human being to remind me that I wasn’t the only person who liked to hike at night, but every corner I turned revealed a path as empty as the evening air. I passed a familiar group of trees on my right and then I felt the touch again, on my other shoulder. This time it felt more deliberate. A gentle nudge, unmistakably real, but gone as soon as I realized it had happened. I stopped again, and turned around. I could see fifty feet up the trail behind me, before it rounded a bend. There were a few tall trees on each side, but no people in sight.

I regretted staying out so late. In fifteen minutes, I had gone from slightly uncomfortable to genuinely afraid, and it became harder and harder to tune out the insects buzzing by my ears. Gone was the bliss of my evening stroll; for someone who raves about the power of exercise to relieve stress, I was feeling pretty stressed. I continued briskly down a path between two ridges, and little by little the city was obscured from view. My eyes darted left and right, and my stride was just short of jogging. At this point there were hills on either side of me, so my field of vision was limited to forward and up. I looked up. The sky was a dark bruise of purple and black, with the occasional stars peppered in between the leaves of the trees. I couldn’t see the moon. I wondered if the stars would be enough light for me to see without using the light on my phone – I didn’t like the way flashlights made the shadows jump.

I must have looked up for too long, because left-right-left-right suddenly became left-left and then I was falling, falling very slowly, with nothing to grab onto, and suddenly time caught up with me and I was on the ground. It somehow felt wrong to lose my momentum, because I was still afraid, and I forced myself up so I could continue home as quickly as possible, but before I could brush myself off it struck me that everything around me had grown quiet. I looked up and down the trail. No people, no animals, no sound. I felt individual beads of sweat form along my arms and neck. I realized I couldn’t see the stars. There was no wind. I held my breath. And then it happened again.

This time it came to rest on the back of my right shoulder, but it wasn’t a tap, or a poke, or a stroke, because it didn’t go away. And it was in that blindness and silence that I truly felt it there behind me: a dull pressure about the size of a hand, unmoving but deliberate, in a way that would be comforting had I known who or what it was, but I did not. I started to turn around, but then I stopped. I felt cold, I felt afraid, and I felt the hair on my neck shuddering slightly in the breeze, but there was no breeze.

And then it was gone, and I saw the stars and heard the bugs, and suddenly I was running, running faster than I have ever run before, all the way home to my front door, which I opened and promptly slammed behind me.

All senses, as mediums to the outside, provide us with concrete methods of experiencing the world. But our minds can fool us. The wind against our neck might be a person’s breath until we snap back to reality. A quick movement in the corner of our eyes, or a voice calling our name when there’s nobody around, are often chalked up to poor vision or faulty hearing and lost in the waves of random, everyday happenstance. Our bodies are reliable, but everyone makes mistakes.

Out of all the organs in the human body, the skin is the most sensitive. It envelops all of us, a system of tiny hairs and pores and nerves connected to nerves connected to nerves. Even the smallest collision of our body and a separate object reminds us that it occupies space. To feel something is to know it’s there. You wouldn’t really think about it until someone tells you… but then it makes sense.

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