It is a bright but cold morning in December when an old woman with the mythologically-infused name Phoenix Jackson sets out along a worn path she knows well. Armed with a cane in her hand and red rag to keep her head warm, Phoenix may possess a name endowed with academic vitality, but her existence is that of a thousand other old Negro women who have walked along similarly worn paths throughout a Southern United States defined by its racism toward people like Phoenix on the basis of nothing more than the color of her skin.
When there is movement in thick vegetation lining the path, she vocally threatens the mysterious animal creatures who may be living there and steadfastly refuses to push back or pull up. When the path starts to run uphill, Phoenix complains that it feels as chains are around her feet, but still she presses on. Once she reaches the top of the hill she rests only a moment to look at what is spread out before her. A thorny bush grabs hold of her dress, but she finds the strength to pull herself free and keep up the momentum. When she reaches the bottom of the hill, she is forced to make her way over a creek by inching across a fallen long. Once on the other side, she finally takes just a moment to rest. As she does, she is surprised by the sight of a small boy appearing before her holding a plate on which was the offer a piece of cake. Upon trying to reach for the cake, however, all she gets is air and then boys is no longer there.
Setting off once again brings the old woman to another obstruction: a fence of barbed wire under which she must crawl on her hands and knees. Once on the other side, she makes her way through a cornfield complete with buzzards and a scarecrow. Next comes a ravine where she stops to take a sip of water from a spring. Then it is through a swampy area and a long stretch of road on which she encounters a threatening black dog. When the dogs comes at her, it is punished with a snap of the old woman’s cane. A white man—a hunter—helps her from the spill she took into a ditch after the dog attack. He starts out nice by asking her if she all right and then asks where she is going. When she answers that she is headed into town, he makes a racist comment about what he assumes to know about black people. During their conversation, he loses a nickel from his pocket and she takes it and slips it into her apron pocket. His last words are warning her to go back home and stay out of harm, but she is determined to fulfill mission.
The city of Natchez, Mississippi is her destination and it is festooned with Christmas decorations and lights. She enters a building and goes up to a woman seated at a desk who assumes that Phoenix is another charity case. When asked what is bother her, Phoenix does not respond, leading the attendant to rudely question if she is deaf by vocally asking the old woman if she cannot hear. A nurse appears who recognizes Phoenix and informs the attendant that she is there to visit her grandson who swallowed lye a few years earlier. When the nurse inquires if the medicine the doctor gave did anything to improve the condition of her grandson’s throat and Phoenix once again does not reply, the nurse complains that she is wasting their valuable time. As if waking from a dream, Phoenix apologizes for a temporary loss of memory. She informs the nurse that her grandson’s throat closes up on occasion and he has trouble swallowing. For this reason, more medicine is required. When the nurse brings her another bottle of medicine, she hands it over and says “Charity” before checking her accounts book.
The attendant hands Phoenix a nickel as a Christmas gift. The old woman takes it and then removes the nickel she put into her apron after the white hunter dropped it. Holding them both in her hand, Phoenix announces she is going to use the ten cents to buy a paper windmill after a Christmas present for her grandson. Then, with a nod, she leaves.