In December a very old black woman walks slowly through a pine forest. Her name is Phoenix Jackson. She wears a red rag tied around her head, her shoes are unlaced, and her face has “numberless branching wrinkles”. Old and frail, she carries a cane, which she switches at animals she thinks she hears moving in the brush. She does not want them to derail her as she has “a long way” to go. Phoenix continues down the long undulating path. She looks back at where she has come from, thinking about how hard the journey always is for her, how “something always…pleads I should stay”.
Phoenix’s age and poverty are emphasized through the description of her wrinkles, her cane, and the state of her shoes. The cane both aids her physical deficiencies and acts as a rather ineffectual weapon against the natural dangers/nuisances she knows she might encounter in her journey along the rural path. The difficulty of her as yet unexplained journey is made clear in the way something—her body, her mind – pleads that she stop. Her perseverance is communicated in the simple fact that she doesn’t.
Phoenix’s skirt gets tangled in a bush, and she carefully removes herself so that the fabric doesn’t rip, her fingers, “quick and intent”. But each time she succeeds another part of her dress gets caught. She refuses to let the thorns rip up her skirt, but she understands that they’re “doing [their] appointed work.” Coming to a river with only a log for a bridge, Phoenix proclaims, “Now comes the trial.” She crosses it successfully with her eyes closed, which proves to her that she isn’t as frail as might be thought.
The trials and obstacles of the journey, which Phoenix recognizes as such, reflect the sometimes random and unfair travails of her life. The thorns allude to the crown of thorns around Jesus’ head. Yet Phoenix possesses a wry sense of humor and, like Christ, accepts her obstacles as part of life. Closing her eyes at the bridge underscores her faith in a higher being who will watch and protect her, as well as her own memory or inner strength over her outward senses and abilities.
Sitting down to rest by a tree, Phoenix imagines a boy handing her a piece of cake, though she gets up quickly after realizing this is only a reverie. Somewhat further on, she must pass through a barbed wire fence, and she is again careful about her dress. Seeing a buzzard, she asks it aloud what it is watching, and is glad that God made it so that snakes and other dangerous creatures are not out at this time of year.
Her reverie of the boy establishes Phoenix’s tendency to drift off. The reverie also suggests how her life might have looked had she and her family lived an easier life – a boy bringing her, in her old age, cake. Though a dreamer, she is also a determined realist, tending to her obstacles one at a time, and never deviating from her path. Note how she feels free to commune with nature, and how she is grateful to God for whatever small blessings are afforded her.
Going through a field, Phoenix sees something “tall, black, and skinny”, which she mistakes for a “dancing” ghost. Only when she touches it does she realize it is not a real man. Speaking aloud, she wonders at her age and on her loss of sense, saying she “should be shut up for good”. She commands the scarecrow to dance “while I dancing with you,” then, shaking her head slightly, continues walking.
The scarecrow seems at first like it might be a lynched black man, a sudden intrusion of the social violence that faces black people in the South upon what had up until now seemed just a trial of Phoenix against nature. Phoenix dancing with this “ghost” suggests her deep and inherited connection to this history, as well as a kind of celebration on her part that the scarecrow is not, in fact, something worse than that.
Coming to the wagon track, she assumes the journey will be easier. She happens upon an old well of unknown origins—unknown because it existed from before her birth. Not long after, a black dog with a “lolling tongue” suddenly appears and she is unprepared and manages to hit it only once with her cane before falling into a ditch. She scolds herself lightly for getting into this situation and allowing a dog, which is now sitting on his tail and “smiling” at her, to “stall” her. She tries to reach up and, finding no one, just waits.
Phoenix thinks, understandably, that as the road itself gets easier the journey will be easier, but as it turns out as she moves deeper into the more populated areas of Mississippi things get more difficult. She stands up to the dog, and even when she fails she accepts her fate. Reaching up her hand for help when no one is there could be taken for a sign of delusion, but it might also be taken as a sign of faith. She does not lose her cool and is clear-eyed about her situation.
A white hunter, a young man, soon comes along, with a dog on a chain. He laughingly asks Phoenix, whom he calls “Granny,” what she’s doing in the ditch, before lifting her out. While the two dogs growl at each other, he good-naturedly but condescendingly asks Phoenix whether she’s hurt and about where she lives and where she’s going. When she explains that she’s not going home, but to town, he exclaims that that’s the distance he walks when he comes out to hunt. He then indicates the birds he’s shot and says, but at least “I get something for my trouble.” She insists on going to town, and he laughs that “I know you old colored people…wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus!”
The hunter at first seems like a kind savior who has appeared in a lucky miracle, but he turns out to be a more complicated figure. His initial questions about Phoenix’s home and journey suggest that he arrogantly thinks it’s his right to know these things (notice that she doesn’t ask him any such questions). His disbelief that she would walk as far as he can demeans her based on her age. And his comments that she’ll get no benefit from her trip and assumption that she’s just going to see Santa Claus show how his prejudices about her race make him believe her journey is not only less important than his but is, in fact, totally frivolous and based on superficial religious superstition.
Phoenix does not correct the hunter’s lack of understanding, and in fact keeps very still, because she’s noticed that a nickel has fallen out of his pocket. When he asks how old she is, Phoenix responds that there is “no telling”. Then, changing the subjects, she laughs at the other dog because, being “a big black dog”, he isn’t “scared of nobody.” The challenge compels the hunter to get rid of the dog by chasing after it with his own dog. As the hunter does that, Phoenix, very slowly and with “grace and care”, reaches down and carefully picks up the nickel and puts it in her apron pocket. She notices a bird fly overhead, admits that she’s “come to stealing,” and remarks that God’s been watching her the whole time.
Phoenix outwits the white hunter by cleverly using his pride and feelings of racial superiority over blacks (both herself and the dog) against him, and she manages to steal a nickel with remarkable grace. The nickel’s importance to her testifies to her poverty, while the guilt she feels afterward shows her conscience and deep religious feeling (though the fact that she steals the nickel might, at this point, raise questions in some reader’s minds about her character or motives).
The hunter comes back after scaring off the dog, and, laughing, points the gun at Phoenix and asks her if she’s scared. She stands completely still, but tells him that she’s seen many guns go off much closer to her than his is, and for less reason “than what I done”. The hunter claims that he would give her money if he had any with him, and tells her again to stay home so that nothing happens to her. As they part ways, she hears his gun going off repeatedly in the distance.
Perhaps amped up on his “success” in proving his and his dog’s strength over the black dog, the hunter does not stop there and feels the need to also assert his power over Phoenix, an old and defenseless black lady. Phoenix alludes directly to white violence against innocent blacks, but the hunter barely seems to notice—it doesn’t seem important to him that she’s seen innocents killed. Instead he tells her to keep to her place in society—in her rural home. He then lies about not having any money – his lost nickel proves that he did at least have that. Phoenix’s earlier comment about God watching the whole time gains some resonance here. Is God watching the hunter as he threatens and lies, too?
Reaching Natchez, Phoenix hears the bells ringing. It is Christmastime and she is disoriented by the lights, but she pays little attention to what she sees and instead “depended on her feet” to know the way.
Rather than the city being a place of comfort for Phoenix, it is a place of disorientation. Yet Phoenix is guided by instinct borne over many trips to make it to her destination. She has worn a path through the city.
A woman carrying a number of presents in her hands walks by and Phoenix stops her to ask her if she will tie her shoes for her, telling the woman that unlaced shoes are “right for out in the country” but not in the “big building” she is going to. The woman, who is a bit gruff, tells her to “stand still then”, but does tie Phoenix’s shoes. Phoenix thanks the woman and says that she “doesn’t mind asking” for someone to tie her shoe.
Phoenix is aware that country clothes are inappropriate in the city. The woman carrying presents again contrasts to Phoenix’s own poverty. The image of the woman tying Phoenix’s shoes echoes Mary Magdalene washing Christ’s feet. Yet the (almost certainly white) woman acts not with pure generosity, but rather with a kind of arrogant gruffness, ordering Phoenix to “stand still then.” Phoenix, though, seems not to register the woman’s implied sense of superiority. Phoenix’s own dignity outweighs the slight in the other woman’s gruffness.
Phoenix enters the big building and climbs up flights of stairs until her feet tell her where to stop. She enters a room and sees a document with a gold seal in a gold frame. The document “matched the dream that was hung up in her head”. “Here I be,” Phoenix says.
Once again Phoenix’s body knows where it ‘s going—it’s as if she’s “worn” this path into her bones. The document is a diploma. That it matches her “dream” suggests two things: that she treasures the knowledge it implies as something that can help her; but also that she treasures that knowledge, which she never had the chance to attain, for its own sake and as a possibility for her descendants. “Here I be” is an assertion of her success in making this difficult journey, and more broadly her right to be there.
An attendant sitting at a reception desk immediately pegs her as “a charity case”. The attendant questions Phoenix for details regarding why she’s come with increasing frustration and condescension, but Phoenix does not respond to her. Finally a nurse comes out and, with a bit more kindness, identifies her as “old Aunt Phoenix” who comes “as regular as clockwork” to pick up her grandson’s medication—he swallowed lye a few years ago, which damaged his throat—and offers her a seat. The nurse repeatedly asks her how her grandson is doing, but Phoenix remains silent, until finally the nurse grows exasperated and scolds Phoenix for “taking up “ their time, and asks if her grandson is dead. At this Phoenix comes back to herself and explains that she hard forgotten why she had made her trip. As if excusing herself, she says that her memory failed her and mentions that she was “too old at the Surrender” to ever get an education.
Yet Phoenix is immediately, and once again, accosted by a condescending figure of white authority. Even the more understanding nurse gets frustrated with her, and the nurse’s comment about Phoenix taking up their time indicates her sense of her own importance relative to Phoenix’s. The nurse’s comments also finally reveal to the reader what has been withheld: Phoenix’s motivation for her journey. Phoenix’s silence is at first perplexing, but her explanation suggests that it’s a product of her total exhaustion—this journey was profoundly difficult for her. And now it’s clear why she made such a difficult journey: for love of her grandson.
The nurse, speaking loudly and slowly, suggests that the grandson will never heal. Phoenix, however, says the boy’s suffering never holds him down and states that he is “going to last”. Though she has momentarily seemed to forget him, she vows not to do so again, and says that “I could tell him from all the others in creation.”
The nurse is both condescending in the way she talks and blunt in her assessment of the boy’s future. Yet Phoenix is optimistic and talks about her grandson in terms of perseverance – he is “going to last.” Phoenix’s assertion of her grandson’s primacy in God’s existence suggests her feeling of her own and her grandson’s self-worth as individuals.
After this the nurse reveals that the doctor has said that as long as Phoenix can come get it, he will provide the medicine as charity. The nurse brings out the medicine, and marks “Charity” on a form. The attendant, noting that it’s Christmastime, asks if she can give Phoenix a few pennies, despite her earlier condescension. Phoenix answers by saying “five pennies is a nickel”. She takes the coin without hesitation, if carefully.
The free medicine exists both as charity and imposition, showing the city to be a place of nominal caring but also a place of harshness and practicality. She can have the medicine for free, but no one’s going to go to the effort to bring it to her. The attendant’s charity must also be seen in concert with her earlier rudeness – she seems to be giving because that’s what you do at Christmas, not because she cares. Phoenix has enough dignity to both name the terms of the amount, and to accept the charity without self-denigration.
Phoenix puts both her coins next to each other in her palm, taps her cane on the floor, and declares that she is going to buy a paper windmill for her grandson, that “he will find it hard to believe there is such a thing in the world”. She says, “This is what I come to do.” Lifting her “free hand”, she walks out of the office and goes down the steps slowly.
The cane’s tap announces Phoenix’s newfound if minimal economic power, and she suddenly revises, or perhaps augments, the aim of her journey, though still in the name of her love. She will purchase for her grandson something that will show her love for him and broaden his world, make him see what’s possible. The gift is something that harnesses nature into both energy and beauty—it is something that represents hope, that maybe, just maybe, will help spur her grandson to push on and extend the worn path a little farther. These are just Phoenix’s hopes and dreams, of course, and given her grandson’s injury they are as fragile as the paper windmill, but now it is clear that these dreams are what fueled her journey and her dignity, are what drives her to keep wearing down her path. And she has traveled extremely far: Phoenix was born a slave, after all, but now as she heads back home she is lifting her “free hand.”