Eudora Welty’s short story opens on a chilly December morning. An elderly African-American woman named Phoenix Jackson is making her way, slowly but surely, through the woods, tapping an umbrella on the ground in front of her as she walks. Her shoes are untied. While she taps along, she talks to the animals in the woods, telling them to keep out of her way. As the path goes up a hill, she complains about how difficult walking becomes. It becomes evident that she has made this journey many times before; she is familiar with all the twists and turns in the trail. She talks aimlessly to herself. Her eyesight is poor, and she catches her skirt in the thorns on a bush.
After walking across a log to traverse a stream, she rests. She imagines a boy bringing her a slice of cake but opens her eyes to find her hand in the air, grasping nothing. The terrain becomes more difficult, and at a certain point she thinks she sees a ghost, but it is only a scarecrow. Blaming the confusion on her age and the fact that her”senses is gone,” she moves on. She meets a black dog with a “lolling tongue.” She hits the dog lightly with her cane, and the effort knocks her off balance and she falls into a ditch.
The dog’s owner, a white hunter, happens by and helps her out of the ditch. When he hears that she is attempting to make it into town, he says it is too far and tells her to go home. But Phoenix is determined, and the hunter laughs, saying “I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus.” While he is laughing, a nickel falls out of his pocket. While he momentarily turns his attention to his dogs, she snatches the nickel from the ground. When he returns, he points the gun at her and asks if it scares her. After she tells him that it does not, he leaves her and she continues walking. Finally she reaches Natchez, where the Christmas bells are ringing and the town is festooned with decorations. She asks a white woman to tie her shoe, and the woman obliges.
Arriving at her destination, the woman climbs a set of stairs and enters a doctor’s office. The attendant assumes Phoenix is a charity case. The nurse replies that it is “just old Aunt Phoenix” who has come to get medicine for her grandson. Phoenix remains silent as the nurse asks her questions. The nurse eventually loses patience and urges the old woman to “tell us quickly about your grandson, and get it over.” Phoenix snaps out of her daze when a “flame of comprehension” comes to her. She explains what the nurse already knows, that her grandson swallowed lye and now needs medicine periodically to soothe his throat. The nurse offers Phoenix a few pennies, to which she responds “Five pennies is a nickel.” After the nurse gives her the nickel, she lays her two nickels side by side in her hand and then leaves the office to buy her grandson a paper windmill.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Eudora Welty, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.