Down on one knee, she looks into the sole.

Her eyes are locked level with a pair of naked feet fallen apart from each other like two rag dolls on a table. Slower than slow motion, she holds these feet one at a time, strokes each gently, cups it between her hands, and begins: Her thumbs stroke up the foot, fan out and glide back to the toes. She cradles the foot and begins moving up it hand over hand, as if climbing an imaginary rope. She circles the foot at the ankle and takes each toe between her thumb and forefinger, squeezing it, rolling it, pulling on it, pulling it toward her. On the top of the foot, her thumb finds the place between each tendon, moving up from toe to ankle, making a small furrow.

She takes her hands away. Drops them at her side for a moment. Brings the feet together and brushes her hand over them as if in benediction. The feet rest and the body asks for more.

Patty Prestigiacomo sees this body -- the human body -- as a palette of muscle, tendon and skin that she can work as if she were a child swirling finger paints on paper. Diane Herz, who is lying naked on her massage table, is an athletic 29-year-old, but she has been putting her store of aches and trauma and stress and worry into Patty's hands for close to five years.

Patty's hands are schooled in therapeutic massage. She barely looks at what she is doing because her hands connect to Diane and lead her. Energy flows out of her through her fingertips and in a current to Diane. Some of it will hurt, a delightful kind of hurt. In the end, it will soothe.

This evening, Diane is sluggish. Patty can feel it when she lifts Diane's head slightly, slips her hands underneath it and presses her thumbs into the two fleshy spots at the base of the skull. She holds Diane's head as she would a delicate vase. Her hands listen for cranial rhythms. She waits. They tell her to begin.

Her hands creep around the skull. She lays her fingers on Diane's forehead. Diane feels no more than the weight of a nickel. Patty makes a slow descent to the outer edges of the forehead to the temporal bones. Her fingers go into the ears and pull down on the lobes as if they were rubber bands. She traces lengthening strokes along Diane's jaw. She is preparing Diane's head, and as her hands move around they form a frame around her face.

Her hands suddenly move back to the top of the head, where she plunges them into Diane's brown hair and onto her scalp. The professionals call it "the hairdresser's move." The scalp moves in little circles and looks detached from the head, as if you could peel it off like a wig. "It feels wonderful; it's one of my favorite things," says Diane. Her face is composed, her eyes closed.

Patty stands at the head of the table, behind Diane. She dips her hands into a white jar and quickly rubs an odorless cream into her hands. She picks Diane's head up and moves it: Left. Right. Back to center. She tosses the neck gently, side to side. Diane looks as if she's thrashing lightly through a bad dream. Patty runs her hands down the neck. She lengthens it, pulling the head away from the shoulders. She sits on a stool and slips her hands deeper under Diane's back, beyond the shoulders, pulling on the fleshy parts of the back as you would the skin folds of a bloodhound. She sinks her fingers back into Diane's neck. It is relaxed now. Patty releases her grip on the head, sets it back on the table as if it were a ripe fruit.

Patty is 5-foot-2 and weighs 138 pounds. She handles people much more than twice her size. She has learned to distribute the strain of giving a massage, bending her knees and letting her shoulders and hips do the work.

She is not muscular, but she is firm from lifting weights three times a week. After an hour of work, she shows no fatigue. But the accumulated effort of manipulating mounds of flesh has taken its toll. Not long ago, she stopped working for four months while she tried to control the pain in her own neck caused by herniated disks. She saw a chiropractor, took massage and went to physical therapy.

Patty, who is 43, has done massage therapy since 1989. She used to have an office at 17th and R streets NW, but now she has a bright, airy, very private room in her Takoma Park home. Her clients usually come to her, though she goes to a downtown law firm once a week and brings a special chair with her so she can give "seated massage." Thirteen people come to her and she gives them 15 minutes each. She sees another eight people at Intelsat twice a month.

To a client, her hands feel like suede gloves. They feel as if they have no fingernails, no cuticles, no rough spots. They know everything that hurts, everything that feels good. They have memory. They probe deeply, but never, Patty says, "to the place of pain." The massage professionals call it "structured touch." They tell students of massage to visualize their hands as hot pads, sending out heat.

Diane first came to Patty to erase the tightness that her body carried every day in her stomach and abdominals. Later, a softball injury left her with little titanium plates in her cheekbones and nerves without sensation. By now, Patty knows her pain patterns almost as well as she does.

The arms are next. Patty picks up Diane's left arm as if it had no connection to her body. She shakes it, moves it back and forth. She works down the arm. Then the right arm, the same thing, so the body feels balance. Then the chest muscles. Then the legs.

Diane turns over and drops her head over the front of the table into a face cradle. The rest of her body, from neck to toes, is in a straight line. Patty works the legs and gluteal muscles. The back is pale and ready to be touched.

This is the part that people think of as massage. She rubs her hands together to warm them, dabs on some cream. She lays her hands lightly at the top of the back, pauses, and begins stroking. Beginning at the base of the neck, with her thumbs almost together, she uses compression and gliding strokes alongside the spine. She strokes down the back, pulls out across the shoulders and top of the arms. Her hands glide back down the sides of Diane's body.

Patty takes a fold of skin between her forefinger and thumb. She holds it and releases it, and repeats the movement down the length of Diane's back. It's like fluting a pie crust.

The work becomes much harder and deeper. Her thumbs disappear into Diane's back. She kneads slowly and rhythmically down the sides. She grasps a piece of flesh at the hips, squeezes it and hands it off to her other hand. She fans her hands out over the lower part of the back, moving along the spine. She works down the back to the shoulders, her hands smoothing out small, tight bundles of knots. The flesh is the consistency of raw chicken, and it becomes pinker as she works.

To "wake" Diane and signal to her that the session is over, Patty does quick and feathery strokes. She stops. She pulls up the sheet. Diane turns over and Patty touches her legs through the sheet and gently rocks her entire body back and forth in a sort of wordless prayer. She silently moves back to the head of the table, back behind Diane, and with her fingers seeks again the two fleshy spots at the base of the skull. She holds for a while, decides the cranial rhythms are right, and releases.

"It's a way to say goodbye," she says, and leaves the room.

Cindy Skrzycki is a columnist for The Post's Business section.