Mago, Carlos, and Reyna grow jealous and resentful of their cousin Élida, who is their grandmother’s favorite. Evila washes Élida’s long, shiny hair twice a week with lemon juice, then combs it out and lets it dry in the sun. Reyna and her siblings, meanwhile, are “louse-ridden” and infected with roundworms, to boot. Explaining why she doesn’t take good care of Reyna, Mago, and Carlos, Evila says that the three of them are the children of her daughter-in-law. With her own daughters, she can be sure that the children are theirs, but a daughter-in-law could have done anything “when no one was looking.”
Evila’s excuse for treating Reyna, Carlos, and Mago is so flimsy and mean that it makes obvious the fact that Evila is simply a cruel person. She uses that excuse, though, to elevate Élida at every turn and shower her with affection, even as her other three grandchildren are diseased, starving, and miserable.
One day, Élida is lying in the sun and letting her hair dry while, nearby, Mago and Reyna scrub their dirty clothes in the wash basin. She looks over and tells the girls that their mother will never come back for them now that she’s making money in El Otro Lado. Mami has already been there for two and a half months, and every time they talk to her on the phone, they remind her of her promise to return within a year. Mago tells Élida that it’s Élida’s mother—who has had another child in El Otro Lado—who is never coming back, and Élida grows sullen and quiet.
In a town where so many children’s parents have fled for the United States, emotions are high—and calling into question one’s parents’ intention to return is the ultimate power move. Even the haughty Élida is rendered silent by Mago’s dig about her mother’s abandonment.
A little while later, Élida starts her taunts up again, bragging that her own mother writes her letters while Reyna and Mago’s mother writes them none. Mago sweeps a cloud of dust towards Élida, and threatens to infect her perfect hair with lice. Élida runs inside to tell Abuela Evila, and Reyna chastises Mago for getting them in trouble—they’re sure to get a beating.
Though Mago can fight with Élida, it is Élida who really wields the power in the house—and how she uses it in this chapter shows just how ruthless she really is.
That evening, Evila decides to take care of the children’s lice once and for all. Emperatriz doesn’t want to help her mother, but Evila forces her to pour kerosene on the children’s heads one by one. After combing kerosene through Reyna, Mago, and Carlos’s hair, she sends them off to bed, where they lie awake all night scratching their burning scalps.
Evila’s choice to douse her grandchildren’s heads in kerosene seems to be direct retribution for Mago’s squabbling with Élida earlier. Evila’s torments are growing more cruel and unusual and escalating in terms of how much danger she’s placing her grandchildren in.
The following day, the lice remain, and Evila enlists Augurio to shave the children’s heads. Reyna weeps as her grandfather cuts off her beautiful curls. Once the haircut is over, Reyna runs to her aunt’s room to inspect herself in the mirror—she is horrified to find she looks like a boy. She stares at a picture of her father and reminisces about happier times with her parents. When Mago calls her down to dinner, Emperatriz is horrified to see what has become of Reyna, but Élida is delighted to have one more thing to tease her cousin about.
Both Evila and Élida delight in having a way of subjugating and humiliating Reyna and her siblings, exerting control over them and cruelly playing not just with their feelings but with their fates.
That night, Reyna dreams wistfully of her mother washing her own hair with lemon water. In the middle of the night, she wakes up to find that Carlos has wet the bed.
Carlos’s bed-wetting seems to a symptom directly related both to his mother’s abandonment and his grandmother’s cruelty and abuse.