Antonio Márez is pretty precocious as far as kids go. Not yet old enough to go to school, he starts pondering the events of his birth and whether or not his destiny has been laid out for him. You know, like most five-year-olds. He dreams of a fight between his mother's family, a group called the Luna who live their lives as farmers, and his father's family, the wandering Márez. He questions which blood courses through his veins.
Antonio's journey towards self-discovery kicks into high gear with the arrival of Ultima (a.k.a. La Grande) and her owl. Ultima carries with her the power of the curandera, one who heals with herbs and ancient secrets and battles against the evil of the brujas (witches). In her old age, Ultima comes to Antonio's home to live out the rest of her life with a family that has heaps of respect for her.
It doesn't take long for things to start getting a little crazy in the Márez abode. Soon after Ultima arrives, Antonio witnesses the death of a murderer named Lupito. World War II drove Lupito crazy and led him to kill the town sheriff. In response, the men of the town hunt him down and kill him. It's not every day, a little kid witnesses a manhunt and murder, so not too surprisingly, Lupito's death leads Antonio to question the place of God in the world. Don't act like this is strange. Some kids like to learn how to ride a bike; some like to ponder the great philosophical questions of our time. To each his own.
Antonio's doubts about God only grow as he learns more from Ultima. She takes Antonio under her wing, showing him the ways of nature, the power of healing, and the magic that resides in the world. This is huge for Antonio. It's like having that one teacher, coach, or grandparent who tells you stuff that sticks with you for the rest of your life. Under Ultima's guidance, Antonio starts his journey toward manhood, but he also starts to seriously question the staunch Catholic beliefs instilled in him by his mother. Yep, things are getting complicated.
After the action-movie-style sequence of the Lupito manhunt, things shift a little toward the horror movie genre when Antonio witnesses Ultima cure his uncle and set him free from a witch's curse. Dolls kind of come to life, the uncle spews bile, and Antonio starts to further question his faith in God and science, because he realizes that Ultima succeeded where the priest and the doctor failed.
Eventually, Ultima's battle with the curse brings her and Antonio into direct conflict with a man named Tenorio. This guy screams villain from the moment he steps on the scene. You can almost hear the sinister music playing in the background whenever Tenorio comes a-callin'. Ultima claims Tenorio's daughters were responsible for the curse put on Antonio's uncle, and in turn, Tenorio blames Ultima when his daughter dies. He vows revenge like the good evil antagonist he is.
As Antonio continues to learn from Ultima, from the priest at his catechism class, and from his teachers at school (he does reach the age where he can go to school), his doubts about whether or not there is one God, many gods, or no gods at all grow. A lot.
Then, the grim reaper comes a-knockin' once again when Antonio witnesses the murder of family friend Narciso at the hands of Tenorio. Sadly, Antonio can't catch a break when it comes to people dying around him, because not long after Narciso's murder, Antonio sees his good friend Florence drown. The fact that good people seem to be punished and murderers are left free to live their lives forces Antonio to question the presence and purpose of God even further. Seriously, this kid is like a pre-pubescent Jean Paul Sartre. It's just one existential crisis after another.
Eventually, the bad blood between Ultima and Tenorio comes to a head. Tenorio discovers that Ultima's soul dwells in her owl, which is pretty cool when you think about it. Unfortunately, Tenorio manages to kill the owl just as Antonio arrives to warn Ultima. Tenorio turns to kill Antonio, but Antonio's Uncle Pedro drops the villain before he can kill our young hero. As Ultima lies dying, Antonio asks her to bless him. She does, and boy it's a powerful blessing. Who knows, it might even bring tears to a reader's eyes (just us?). Antonio buries Ultima's owl as she requested, and that brings this story to a close.