Phoenix's grandson does not appear in the story, but his medical condition is the reason for the old woman's journey. Having swallowed lye (a strong alkaline substance used in making soap) several years ago, the boy's throat is permanently damaged. His grandmother is the only relative he has left, and she makes the trip to town to receive medicine that soothes the pain. There has been no change in his condition, Phoenix tells the nurse, he sits with his "mouth open like a little bird." She also says that though he suffers, he has "a sweet look." Though Phoenix says he is not dead, some critics have theorized that he is.
The hunter encounters Phoenix after she has fallen into a ditch, the unfortunate result of an encounter with one of his dogs. He helps her up, demonstrating his willingness to assist a person in need. But his subsequent conversation with her reveals his disrespect for her and biased attitudes towards African Americans in general. When he learns that she intends to walk to town, he assumes Phoenix is not able to make the long journey and he tells her to go home; he has no qualms about issuing the order. But when she persists, he relents, assuming that the only reason "old colored people" would embark on such a long trail would be to see Santa Claus. In a second instance of disrespect, he tells Phoenix that he would give her a dime if he had one, unaware that Phoenix has already picked up the nickel that fell out of his pocket. In a third example, he points a gun at her face and asks if it scares her. He is amused by the fact that it does not, further emphasizing his insensitivity. Throughout the conversation, he refers to her as "Granny," as the other characters do, all of whom are unwilling to look beyond Phoenix's age and see her as an individual.
Old Phoenix Jackson is the protagonist of the story. She is described in vivid colors, suggesting her lively nature: she wears a red rag in her hair and her skin is described as "yellow," "golden" and "copper." Her age is indicated by the way she moves—slowly, in small steps, with the assistance of a cane—and by the wrinkles on her face, which form "a pattern all its own ... as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead." Because of her frailty, her determination to continue on her journey highlights her resilience and perseverance. Old Phoenix sees the Natchez Trace as an obstacle course, one that she tolerates with a fair sense of humor, despite her lapses into...
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