A very old and frail black woman named Phoenix Jackson makes a long and difficult journey on a path from the country into the town. She carries a cane and switches it at imagined animals in the bushes. Her skirt gets tangled on thorns and she crosses a log over a river with her eyes closed. Seeing a buzzard and wondering what it is looking at, she muses on the difficulty of her task and the help God grants her.
Phoenix mistakes a black scarecrow for a man or a ghost. When she realizes it is in fact just a scarecrow she is happy and dances with it for a moment. She finally makes it to a wagon track and thinks the journey will now be easier for her. But a black dog appears, and though she strikes at it with her cane, it ends up knocking her into a ditch. As she can’t help herself, she waits until someone comes to help her.
A white hunter pulls her out of the ditch and asks her about where she comes from and where she lives. When she tells him she is going to town, he condescendingly suggests that she won’t get anything from her journey, and he assumes she’s going to see Santa Claus as it’s Christmastime. Noticing that a nickel has fallen out of the hunter’s pocket, Phoenix goads the hunter to get rid of the black dog that knocked her down by claiming that “the big black dog” isn’t “scare of nobody.” While the hunter chases after it, Phoenix picks up the nickel. When the hunter returns, he casually points his gun at Phoenix and asks if she’s scared. Phoenix responds that she isn’t scared, that she’s seen people killed for less than she’s ever done, and he tells her he would give her a dime if he had any money. They part ways.
Reaching Natchez, Phoenix is overwhelmed by all the lights but allows her muscle memory to take her to the big building where she needs to go. Before entering the building she stops to ask a woman carrying Christmas presents to tie her shoes. She wants to appear dignified before she enters the big building. The woman obliges, though a bit gruffly.
Entering the big building, Phoenix climbs up the flight of stairs and stops before a document with a gold seal in a gold frame. “Here I be”, she says. An attendant in this office immediately assumes she is a “charity case” and harangues Phoenix, who has ceased to talk as she has gone into a kind of reverie (seemingly from exhaustion), but a nurse comes out and identifies her and reveals that she comes to the doctor’s office regularly. The nurse asks about Phoenix’s young grandson’s wellbeing, and explains that the grandson swallowed lye and now requires medication. Though the boy’s case is difficult and the nurse seems skeptical, Phoenix remains confident that he is “going to last.”
The nurse brings out the medicine, which is given to Phoenix as charity as long as she can come to the doctor’s office to get it. The attendant, noting that it’s Christmastime, asks if Phoenix would like a few pennies. Phoenix asks for a nickel, which she gets. Phoenix then takes out her other nickel and places the two of them side by side. She declares that she will buy a paper windmill for her grandson. Raising her “free hand”, she walks away slowly.