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." (8)
The world looks different when you're old—that's what Phoenix is saying here. To her aged eyes, this plant looks like a harmless green shrub, but in reality, those green leaves are thorns. She also talks to the bush, which might be totally batty to some but is totally normal to Phoenix. Phoenix sees everything around her, human or not, as having a dynamic life and purpose of its own.
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. (14)
Like a wanderer in the desert hallucinating an oasis, Phoenix imagines a pleasant break with a sugary snack. Some people have interpreted the cake as a representation of the Christian rite of taking communion. Do you think that's what's going on here? What would it mean to have such a symbol at work here?
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." (21-23)
In Phoenix's world, the supernatural and the natural blend seamlessly. It's not odd to her that she sees a ghost—it's just odd that she doesn't know whose ghost it is.
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. (29)
This passage is a really vivid moment of description, but more than that, it is a moment in which Phoenix presents herself as a dream creature passing through the subconscious of the personified cabins. It's an interesting reversal from the way we usually see reality because it depicts an inanimate setting as the true witness to the passage of time and reality, and people as the figments that weave in and out fleetingly.
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 sense 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 he sitting on his fine tail, smiling at you." (32-33)
Talking aloud to herself, analyzing a dog's facial expressions, having a dream so real that she reaches her hands out in her sleep, meditating… Yup, Phoenix is on an alternate reality roll here.
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." (51)
Check it out—another juggernaut of alternate reality. Phoenix has drifted into a semi-conscious state where actions seem to happen without clear control and where the spiritual world readily manifests itself in the physical world. The thing that catapults her into this twilight zone? Money. Phoenix is very poor, and seeing a nickel on the ground is as unusual as stumbling upon a purple space alien might be. This passage emphasizes that Phoenix's real world is completely different than the world of those with economic resources.
[…] then he laughed and lifted his gun and pointed it at Phoenix. (52)
Phoenix does not imagine the hunter pulling his gun on her—dude does it. And this action would almost certainly not happen if Phoenix were white. Instead, it is a representation of the violence that was tolerated against black people in the Jim Crow era. The world Phoenix faces is not the same version of the world a white person would face. Isn't that an interesting thing to think about? Also, in the hunter's reality, this action is funny. Not so much in Phoenix's reality.
Old Phoenix would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her. (59)
We so often think that we need our eyes to understand and navigate the world. Phoenix demonstrates that eyes can deceive us and that there are other ways of knowing the world beyond what we can see.
She entered the 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. (67)
Phoenix can't read because black children were not allowed to go to school when she was a young girl. In the city, though, the world expects people to be able to read documents like the one posted on the wall. For someone who can't read, the environment is disorienting, seeming more like a dream realm with mysterious codes rather than real life. Imagine trying to follow directions written in Chinese if you only speak English. What Phoenix is feeling is kind of like that.
"All right. The doctor said as long 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 word. He suffer and it don't seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He going to last." (90-91)
In the nurse's reality, Phoenix's grandson is never going to get better; she basically says Phoenix's efforts are pointless. In Phoenix's reality, though, her grandson will survive. It never occurs to her to give up.