The healer goes to the sea to tell it her stories, and in turn, the sea tells its stories to her. "The sea listens, and the sea retells." At the heart of this tale is Chayo (19), the flower-seller, and her husband, Candelario (28), the salad-maker. They are unable to have a child, so when Chayo's younger sister Marta (16) gets pregnant (she was raped but no one believes her)and talks about getting an abortion,Candelario offers to take it as their own. Marta accepts. But soon before Marta births her child, Candelario loses his job and Chayo gets pregnant,and refuses to take Marta's baby.
Marta is shocked and angry, and goes to Remedios to cast a spell for Chayo to change her mind. But Remedios refuses to do this, telling Marta she should raise the baby herself and not venture out to El Paso. Remedios tells her that El Paso will not bring her the good life; only trouble. So Marta goes to the sorceror instead, and he casts a spell on Chayo's child, so that Marta's child will be eventually able to replace it.
Chayo eventually has her son, and he grows to be five years old. But he turns out to be deathly allergic to things like fire ants (this was the sorceror's spell). Chayo hates Marta for this, and will not forgive her. But when the river floods at the end of the book, Marta's son falls in and is swept away by the current. Remedios waits at the shore for the body to reveal itself, and Chayo forgives Marta.
So the tale is about justice, in that sense.
But that's only the main part of the story. Interwoven with this primary tale is the stories of others. One of these stories is that of Fulgencio Llanos, the photographer.
He has just gotten a photograph of the true identity of a famous masked wrestler. He knows he will become famous for this photo. But when he misses the bus back to Santiago, he has to catch a ride with a white American.
The American decides to veer off to a beach on the way back.
Fulgencio gets nervous, thinking he's going to steal his camera equipment. So when the American gets out of the car to go check out the beach, Fulgencio tries to grab hold of the Americans machettes in the back seat. But just as he's doing so, the American gets back to the car and is shocked at what he sees. He screams at Fulgencio to get out of the car, and he peels away.
Fulgencio is heartbroken, with his equipment stolen.
But as he walks down the path, he sees that the American had dumped his equipment out of the car before he drove off.
He wasn't a thief after all! It turns out they were both afraid of each other, for no good reason at all.
Fulgencio would still make it big with his photo.
The next story is that of Raphael Beltran. He is a shy school teacher who lives with his mother, taking care of her even though she does not appreciate it. He grows into his own man when he begins to teach his mother's young servant Ines. He teaches her to read, even against his mother's wishes (she views her as "just a little Indian girl").
Then there is Esperanza Clemente, the midwife. She has been selfless her entire life, ever since she was raped when she was young. Since then she has felt that she did not deserve happiness, not a "ravaged woman". She and Raphael had always been interested in each other, and when his mother finally moves out, they begin to go on dates. But when Esperanza tells Raphael that she had been raped once, Raphael walks away, in shock. But he soon apologizes, and they get married.
Next there is Cesar Burgos, the fisherman. His wife and two sons died not long ago in a bus crash. He had but one son left, and he would not speak to his father. Cesar felt awful and helpless with his son. He'd take him fishing, but still, not a word from the boy. Cesar finally broke down and cried, thinking he's a bad father, and telling the boy he'll give him away to his sister.
But the boy simply tells his father that he blames himself, and that is why he could not speak. They console each other, and they finish the memorial that the father had constructed to remember their family by. They place it at the site of the crash, and hug.
Finally there is Justo Flores, the birdman. He gives people fortunes and puts on little shows for children with his bird.
But he is a lonely old man with a fake smile. He has two former wives and grown up children whom he never talks to anymore.
They won't speak to him. The most he can do now is try to help other people by entertaining them for a short while.
All in all, this book is one that interweaves many peoples' stories into a single tale of hopes, triumphs, shortcomings, and failures to form an impression of a world in which destiny can hinge on the smallest of actions.