Mago, Carlos, and Reyna endure difficult treatment at their Abuela Evila’s. They are made to sleep on a straw bed on the floor in the corner of their grandfather Abuelo Augurio’s smelly room, where the constant threat of scorpions biting them and noise from the alleyway downstairs keeps them awake all night. One night, they hear a clatter in the alley and look out the window to see a man on a horse dragging a sack with what looks like a body in it behind him. In the morning, they tell Evila, who replies that the figure they saw was “the devil making his rounds… looking for all the naughty children to take back to Hell with him.” Mago tells Reyna not to believe Evila, but Reyna is scared.
From their very first night in Abuela Evila’s house, Reyna and her siblings realize that they are in for a difficult time. Though Evila is their grandmother, she seems to care very little for their safety, well-being, and least of all their comfort. She seems to actually want to scare them and make them uncomfortable as a means of exerting control over them—a pattern that the children will encounter again later in their lives, after they leave Evila’s care.
Mago adopts the role of “little mother” to her younger siblings. When walking through the streets, all three of them endure taunts and stares—everyone in town calls them “pobrecitas huerfanitas,” or “poor little orphans.” Their cousin, Élida—the apple of their grandmother’s eye, and the “privileged” granddaughter—is their primary tormentor, even though she herself is “technically […] a little orphan too.”
Even though Élida’s mother has left for El Otro Lado, too, she joins in with the neighborhood kids in teasing Reyna and her siblings for their bad luck—perhaps as a way of making herself feel better.
At mealtimes, the children are forced to eat scraps and leftovers. When Evila prepares porkchops, rice, and beans, Reyna and her siblings eat burnt beans drizzled in leftover oil while Élida gets to pick the first chop. The only member of the household who shows them any kindness is their father’s youngest sister, Tía Emperatriz, who often gives them coins to go buy sodas.
Reyna and her siblings are treated like second-class citizens in their grandmother’s home, and though Emperatriz tries to make things nice for them when she can, it’s clear that she has little control or agency within her own mother’s household, either.
One afternoon, when Evila sends Reyna out to go buy a needle, two little girls (the daughter of the storekeeper Don Bartolo) make a snide remark about Reyna being a little orphan. Reyna throws the coin her grandmother gave her to purchase the needle at one of the little girls, striking her in the face. Reyna goes home emptyhanded, and when she tells Evila the truth, Evila makes Mago take Reyna back to the shop to apologize.
Reyna’s hot temper and sensitive nature get her in trouble with Evila when she goes against her grandmother’s wishes. From this incident, Reyna learns that sticking up for herself when faced with meanness or cruelty will only end in more work and humiliation.
On the way back out, Mago takes Reyna back to their old house instead of to the shop, urging her to hold onto her pleasant memories there. On the way back to Evila’s, Mago pulls Reyna into the bamboo shack near the patio and begins telling Reyna the story of the day she was born—right there, on the dirt floor of the shack. Mago points to a spot on the floor and reminds Reyna that her umbilical cord is buried there. She explains that though there is a distance now between Reyna and their mother, the cord keeps them connected. No matter what their neighbors say, they aren’t orphans.
Mago sees her sister’s suffering and, as her “little mother,” tries to implement a grand gesture that will soothe Reyna and put her mind at ease. Mago attempts to give Reyna a way to feel immune to the neighborhood children’s taunts by empowering through her own story.
Mago takes Reyna back up to the house, but Reyna is afraid that Evila will beat her if she returns without a needle for the second time. She runs down the street as fast as she can, towards the shop, and apologizes to the shopkeeper’s daughter. Don Bartolo comes outside, takes a coin from his pocket, and gives it back to Reyna, explaining that her parents only left “because they love [her] very much.” Reyna purchases the needle and walks home, willing herself to believe the shopkeeper’s words.
Don Bartolo’s words to Reyna are perhaps even more soothing than Mago’s, as Mago herself has harbored doubts about why their parents would have left them. Don Bartolo is the first person to reassure Reyna that she is loved and worthy.