This story was published by The Atlantic in February 1941.
A Worn Path
It was December—a bright frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the country there was an old Negro woman with her head tied in a red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix Jackson. She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air that seemed meditative, like the chirping of a solitary little bird.
She wore a dark striped dress reaching down to her shoe tops, and an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks, with a full pocket: all neat and tidy, but every time she took a step she might have fallen over her shoelaces, which dragged from her unlaced shoes. She looked straight ahead. Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper.
Now and then there was a quivering in the thicket. Old Phoenix said, ‘Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals! … Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites … Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way.’ Under her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things.
On she went. The woods were deep and still. The sun made the pine needles almost too bright to look at, up where the wind rocked. The cones dropped as light as feathers. Down in the hollow was the mourning dove—it was not too late for him.
The path ran up a hill. ‘Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far,’ she said, in the voice of argument old people keep to use with themselves. ‘Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay.’
After she got to the top, she turned and gave a full, severe look behind her where she had come. ‘Up through pines,’ she said at length. ‘Now down through oaks.’
Her eyes opened their widest, and she started down gently. But before she got to the bottom of the hill a bush caught her dress.
Her fingers were busy and intent, but her skirts were full and long, so that before she could pull them free in one place they were caught in another. It was not possible to allow the dress to tear. ‘I in the thorny bush,’ she said. ‘Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass—no, sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush.’
Finally, trembling all over, she stood free, and after a moment dared to stoop for her cane.
‘Sun so high!’ she cried, leaning back and looking, while the thick tears went over her eyes. ‘The time getting all gone here.’
At the foot of this hill was a place where a log was laid across the creek.
‘Now comes the trial,’ said Phoenix. Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and she was safe on the other side.
‘I wasn’t as old as I thought,’ she said.
But she sat down to rest. She spread her skirts on the bank around her and folded her hands over her knees. Up above her was a tree in a pearly cloud of mistletoe. She did not dare to close her eyes, and when a little boy brought her a plate with a slice of marble-cake on it she spoke to him. ‘That would be acceptable,’ she said. But when she went to take it there was just her own hand in the air.
So she left that tree, and had to go through a barbed-wire fence. There she had to creep and crawl, spreading her knees and stretching her fingers like a baby trying to climb the steps. But she talked loudly to herself: she could not let her dress be torn now, so late in the day, and she could not pay for having her arm or her leg sawed off if she got caught fast where she was.
At last she was safe through the fence and risen up out in the clearing. Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field. There sat a buzzard.
‘Who you watching?’
In the furrow she made her way along.
‘Glad this not the season for bulls,’ she said, looking sideways, ‘and the good Lord made his snakes to curl up and sleep in the winter. A pleasure I don’t see no two-headed snake coming around that tree, where it come once. It took a while to get by him, back in the summer.’
She passed through the old cotton and went into a field of dead corn. It whispered and shook, and was taller than her head. ‘Through the maze now,’ she said, for there was no path.
Then there was something tall, black, and skinny there, moving before her.
At first she took it for a man. It could have been a man dancing in the field. But she stood still and listened, and it did not make a sound. It was as silent as a ghost.
‘Ghost,’ she said sharply, ‘who be you the ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by.’
But there was no answer, only the ragged dancing in the wind.
She shut her eyes, reached out her hand, and touched a sleeve. She found a coat and inside that an emptiness, cold as ice.
‘You scarecrow,’ she said. Her face lighted. ‘I ought to be shut up for good,’ she said with laughter. ‘My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest people I ever know. Dance, old scarecrow,’ she said, ‘while I dancing with you.’
She kicked her foot over the furrow, and with mouth drawn down shook her head once or twice in a little strutting way. Some husks blew down and whirled in streamers about her skirts.
Then she went on, parting her way from side to side with the cane, through the whispering field. At last she came to the end, to a wagon track where the silver grass blew between the red ruts. The quail were walking around like pullets, seeming all dainty and unseen.
‘Walk pretty,’ she said. ‘This the easy place. This the easy going.’ She followed the track, swaying through the quiet bare fields, through the little strings of trees silver in their dead leaves, past cabins silver from weather, with the doors and windows boarded shut, all like old women under a spell sitting there. ‘I walking in their sleep,’ she said, nodding her head vigorously.
In a ravine she went where a spring was silently flowing through a hollow log. Old Phoenix bent and drank. ‘Sweet gum makes the water sweet,’ she said, and drank more. ‘Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born.’
The track crossed a swampy part where the moss hung as white as lace from every limb. ‘Sleep on, alligators, and blow your bubbles.’ Then the cypress trees went into the road. Deep, deep it went down between the high green-colored banks. Overhead the live oaks met, and it was as dark as a cave.
A big black dog with a lolling tongue came up out of the weeds by the ditch. She was meditating, and not ready, and when he came at her she only hit him a little with her cane. Over she went in the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed.
Down there, her senses drifted away. A dream visited her, and she reached her hand up, but nothing reached down and gave her a pull. So she lay there and presently went to talking. ‘Old woman,’ she said to herself, ‘that black dog come up out of the weeds to stall you off, and now there he sitting on his fine tail, smiling at you.’
A white man finally came along and found her—a hunter, a young man, with his dog on a chain.
‘Well, Granny!’ he laughed. ‘What are you doing there?’
‘Lying on my back like a June bug waiting to be turned over, mister,’ she said, reaching up her hand.
He lifted her up, gave her a swing in the air, and set her down. ‘Anything broken, Granny?’
‘No sir, them old dead weeds is springy enough,’ said Phoenix, when she had got her breath. ‘I thank you for your trouble.’
‘Where do you live, Granny?’ he asked, while the two dogs were growling at each other.
‘Away back yonder, sir, behind the ridge. You can’t even see it from here.’
‘On your way home?’
‘No sir, I going to town.’
‘Why, that’s too far! That’s as far as I walk when I come out myself, and I get something for my trouble.’ He patted the stuffed bag he carried, and there hung down a little closed claw. It was one of the bobwhites, with its beak hooked bitterly to show it was dead. ‘Now you go on home, Granny!’
‘I bound to go to town, mister,’ said Phoenix. ‘The time come around.’
He gave another laugh, filling the whole landscape. ‘I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus!’
But something held Old Phoenix very still. The deep lines in her face went into a fierce and different radiation. Without warning, she had seen with her own eyes a flashing nickel fall out of the man’s pocket onto the ground.
‘How old are you, Granny?’ he was saying.
‘There is no telling, mister,’ she said, ‘no telling.’
Then she gave a little cry and clapped her hands and said, ‘Git on away from here, dog! Look! Look at that dog!’ She laughed as if in admiration. ‘He ain’t scared of nobody. He a big black dog.’ She whispered, ‘Sic him!’
‘Watch me get rid of that cur,’ said the man. ‘Sic him, Pete! Sic him!’
Phoenix heard the dogs fighting, and heard the man running and throwing sticks. She even heard a gunshot. But she was slowly bending forward by that time, further and further forward, the lids stretched down over her eyes, as if she were doing this in her sleep. Her chin was lowered almost to her knees. The yellow palm of her hand came out from the fold of her apron. Her fingers slid down and along the ground under the piece of money with the grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a setting hen. Then she slowly straightened up; she stood erect, and the nickel was in her apron pocket. A bird flew by. Her lips moved. ‘God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing.’
The man came back, and his own dog panted about them. ‘Well, I scared him off that time,’ he said, and then he laughed and lifted his gun and pointed it at Phoenix.
She stood straight and faced him.
‘Doesn’t the gun scare you?’ he said, still pointing it.
‘No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done,’ she said, holding utterly still.
He smiled, and shouldered the gun. ‘Well, Granny,’ he said, ‘you must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing. I’d give you a dime if I had any money with me. But you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you.’
‘I bound to go on my way, mister,’ said Phoenix. She inclined her head in the red rag. Then they went in different directions, but she could hear the gun shooting again and again over the hill.
She walked on. The shadows hung from the oak trees to the road like curtains. Then she smelled wood smoke, and smelled the river, and she saw a steeple and the cabins on their steep steps. Dozens of little black children whirled around her. There ahead was Natchez shining. Bells were ringing. She walked on.
In the paved city it was Christmas time. There were red and green electric lights strung and crisscrossed everywhere, and all turned on in the daytime. Old Phoenix would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her.
She paused quietly on the sidewalk, where people were passing by. A lady came along in the crowd, carrying an armful of red, green, and silver-wrapped presents; she gave off perfume like the red roses in hot summer, and Phoenix stopped her.
‘Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?’ She held up her foot.
‘What do you want, Grandma?’
‘See my shoe,’ said Phoenix. ‘Do all right for out in the country, but wouldn’t look right to go in a big building.’
‘Stand still then, Grandma,’ said the lady. She put her packages down on the sidewalk beside her and laced and tied both shoes tightly.
‘Can’t lace ’em with a cane,’ said Phoenix. ‘Thank you, missy. I doesn’t mind asking a nice lady to tie up my shoe, when I gets out on the street.’
Moving slowly and from side to side, she went into the big building, and into a tower of steps, where she walked up and around and around until her feet knew to stop.
She entered a door, and there she saw nailed up on the wall the document that had been stamped with the gold seal and framed in the gold frame, which matched the dream that was hung up in her head.
‘Here I be,’ she said. There was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body.
‘A charity case, I suppose,’ said an attendant who sat at the desk before her.
But Phoenix only looked above her head. There was sweat on her face, the wrinkles in her skin shone like a bright net.
‘Speak up, Grandma,’ the woman said. ‘What’s your name? We must have your history, you know. Have you been here before? What seems to be the trouble with you?’
Old Phoenix only gave a twitch to her face as if a fly were bothering her.
‘Are you deaf?’ cried the attendant.
But then the nurse came in.
‘Oh, that’s just old Aunt Phoenix,’ she said. ‘She doesn’t come for herself—she has a little grandson. She makes these trips just as regular as clockwork. She lives away back off the Old Natchez Trace.’ She bent down. ‘Well, Aunt Phoenix, why don’t you just take a seat? We won’t keep you standing after your long trip.’ She pointed.
The old woman sat down, bolt upright in the chair.
‘Now, how is the boy?’ asked the nurse.
Old Phoenix did not speak.
‘I said, how is the boy?’
But Phoenix only waited and stared straight ahead, her face very solemn and withdrawn into rigidity.
‘Is his throat any better?’ asked the nurse. ‘Aunt Phoenix, don’t you hear me? Is your grandson’s throat any better since the last time you came for the medicine?’
With her hands on her knees, the old woman waited, silent, erect and motionless, just as if she were in armor.
‘You mustn’t take up our time this way, Aunt Phoenix,’ the nurse said. ‘Tell us quickly about your grandson, and get it over. He isn’t dead, is he?’
At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke.
‘My grandson. It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.’
‘Forgot?’ The nurse frowned. ‘After you came so far?’
Then Phoenix was like an old woman begging a dignified forgiveness for waking up frightened in the night. ‘I never did go to school—I was too old at the Surrender,’ she said in a soft voice. ‘I’m an old woman without an education. It was my memory fail me. My little grandson, he is just the same, and I forgot it in the coming.’
‘Throat never heals, does it?’ said the nurse, speaking in a loud, sure voice to Old Phoenix. By now she had a card with something written on it, a little list. ‘Yes. Swallowed lye. When was it?—January—two—three years ago—’
Phoenix spoke unasked now. ‘No, missy, he not dead, he just the same. Every little while his throat begin to close up again, and he not able to swallow. He not get his breath. He not able to help himself. So the time come around, and I go on another trip for the soothing-medicine.’
‘All right. The doctor said as long as you came to get it, you could have it,’ said the nurse. ‘But it’s an obstinate case.’
‘My little grandson, he sit up there in the house all wrapped up, waiting by himself,’ Phoenix went on. ‘We is the only two left in the world. He suffer and it don’t seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He going to last. He wear a little patch-quilt and peep out, holding his mouth open like a little bird. I remembers so plain now. I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time. I could tell him from all the others in creation.’
‘All right.’ The nurse was trying to hush her now. She brought her a bottle of medicine. ‘Charity,’ she said, making a check mark in a book.
Old Phoenix held the bottle close to her eyes, and then carefully put it into her pocket.
‘I thank you,’ she said.
‘It’s Christmas time, Grandma,’ said the attendant. ‘Could I give you a few pennies out of my purse?’
‘Five pennies is a nickel,’ said Phoenix stiffly.
‘Here’s a nickel,’ said the attendant.
Phoenix rose carefully and held out her hand. She received the nickel and then fished the other nickel out of her pocket and laid it beside the new one. She stared at her palm closely, with her head on one side.
Then she gave a tap with her cane on the floor. ‘This is what come to me to do,’ she said. ‘I going to the store and buy my child a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world. I’ll march myself back where he waiting, holding it straight up in this hand.’
She lifted her free hand, gave a little nod, turned around, and walked out of the doctor’s office. Then her slow step began on the stairs, going down.
Source: The Atlantic