Sophie Caco, age twelve, returns from school to the house which she shares with her aunt Atie in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti. Sophie feels slighted by Atie's refusal to come to reading classes in the afternoon, which all her classmates' parents attend. Atie never learned to read, having spent her youth working in the cane fields. She now considers herself too old to learn, and claims vicarious satisfaction in Sophie's education.
Chabin, the albino lottery agent, stops by the Caco home on his daily rounds. Tante Atie plays the lottery faithfully, although she has never won anything. She gives Chabin one gourde to play the number thirty-one, the age of her sister Martine, Sophie's mother, who lives in New York and whom Sophie has only seen in photographs and dreams. Noting a sudden sadness in her aunt, Sophie spontaneously presents her with the daffodil-decked Mother's Day card which she had made as a surprise for the following Sunday. But Atie refuses to take it, insisting that it is for Sophie's mother, and that she will accept a card only on Aunt's Day.
In the evening, the neighbors gather for a konbit potluck feast. Over ginger tea, Madame Augustin begins questioning Atie about a mysterious package from Martine which was delivered the day before. Despite Atie's evasions, it quickly becomes clear that Martine has sent Atie an airplane ticket and a cassette with instructions to send Sophie to New York. The gossips are satisfied and pleased, but Sophie is stunned and dismayed.
At home after the potluck, a tear slips down Atie's face as she looks across the road at the silhouettes in the Augustins' bedroom window. Sophie accuses Atie of lying to her about the airplane ticket, but Atie counters that she simply kept a secret that was too difficult to tell. As they get into bed, Atie begs Sophie to tell no one that she cries when she watches Monsieur Augustin and his wife preparing for bed. Sophie is silent, but she secretly slips the Mother's Day card under Atie's pillow.
Over cinnamon rice pudding, Atie begins to tell Sophie about her mother. She explains that Martine left Sophie with her, Atie, only for a little while, and only because she was going to a place she knew nothing about. Martine had always meant to send for Sophie as soon as she could, and Atie had always known her custody of Sophie would not be permanent. Now that the time has come to leave, Atie's great love for her sister prevents her from questioning Martine's decision. Atie tells Sophie how hard her mother has worked for the betterment of the family, and makes Sophie promise that she will not fight with Martine, with whom she shares a great deal. Finally, Atie lays the Mother's Day card beside Sophie's passport, insisting once again that it be given to its proper recipient.
Before Sophie leaves, Atie and Sophie make the five-hour trip to the remote village of La Nouvelle Dame Marie to obtain the blessing of Grandmè Ifé, Atie's mother and Sophie's maternal grandmother. Grandmè Ifé cooks a small feast, and the women eat together on the back porch before retiring to bed. Sophie, alone in a bed in her mother's old room, attends a recurrent nightmare in which her mother chases her through a field of wildflowers, waiting to dream that she will be caught before Atie can save her.