From the Relief Society Magazine, March 1960 –
The Fishbite Story
by Dorothy Clapp Robinson
Papa said there would not be enough potatoes to last until thanksgiving, if Mama didn’t quit digging them as fast as they reached the size of a marble.
“Then Emmy would starve.” His voice sounded the way it does when he wants you to think he is cross.
I was cross. He knows my name is Emma Loretta and I am not a baby to be called “Emmy.”
Mama didn’t answer. She just went on tieing her bonnet strings. Then she picked up an old kitchen fork and a pan and went out. Janie and I followed but were sent back for our bonnets. Mama wouldn’t let us dig. She said Janie was too small, and she was afraid I would break the roots of the potato vines.
Our city lot was planted to all potatoes this year. All except where the barn and the chicken coop are. Oh, yes, and the gooseberry and currant patch and the regular garden.
Mama would go along the row and scratch carefully until she found a potato big enough to cook. Then she would break it carefully away, put it in the pan, then pat the ground around the vine again.
She was not digging them for us to eat. I should say not. Every last potato was going to Eastdale. Same with the carrots and turnips and the beet greens. She had thinned them so many times Papa said next time he would broadcast the seed. There had been no rain in Eastdale, and the dab of water stored in the little reservoir above town had been used on pastures before the gardens were planted. I wished we didn’t have water. Then I wouldn’t have to pull weeds.
Sunday was conference in Manassa. Mama said she wasn’t going. She was taking the garden truck to Eastdale. Any other time Papa would have said, “Wait until Monday,” but this time he didn’t. I loved going to Eastdale after we got there.
We left real early and when we passed through La Cerritos no one was up except the old man with the sheep. We had to wait while his dog hurried them across the little bridge over the creek. I was a little afraid of him. He had no teeth and something was wrong with his upper lip. He smiled and said “Buenos Dias.” Mama nodded but didn’t say anything, but then she never does.
I was hungry and wanted to stop and eat our picnic, but Mama said no, we just had breakfast.
“Goodness golly …” Janie said.
“There is no such word as goodness golly,” I corrected her.
“Goodness gwacious. Breakfast was a long time.” Mama didn’t answer her either.
What a road. The buggy jerked from one big chuckhole to another. Janie clung to Mama and I clung to the seat.
“See the cat-tules,” Janie cried when we turned east.
“Say either cattails or tules,” I told her, “but not cat-tules.”
The meadows were soft green and cattails were growing in water alongside the road. We could see devil-bugs and mosquitoes skittering along on top of the water.
“Why don’t they have their own potatoes?” I meant the people in Eastdale.
“Their seed didn’t come up.”
“Why didn’t they plant some more, or buy grub from the store in Manassa?”
“They spent their money on seed, and seed won’t germinate in dry soil.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means they need rain.”
“Papa said tomorrow they pray for rain at conference.” Janie thought we didn’t know that.
“Well,” I looked up at the big, bright sky, “there have to be big clouds before it can rain.”
“Uh-uh,” Janie contradicted. “Once was a cloud big as a man’s hand and it rained. My Sunday School teacher said so.”
“That was a long time ago and it doesn’t count.” Then I thought of something. “If it rains will Willie come alive?” Willie was our baby brother who was buried in Eastdale.
Mama turned so she could see in my eyes. “What in the world are you talking about?”
“The Fishbite,” Janie said.
“She means Tishbite. You know, Elijah, in the Bible. He made it rain and he made the widow’s son come alive. ‘Course, you are not a widow, but I hope it is Willie.”
Mama went back to her driving.
“Anyway,” I said it real loud, “a cloud big as a man’s hand wouldn’t fill a dishpan.”
I guess dishpan reminded us and we looked back. The space between the seats was filled with garden truck covered with wet gunny sacks. There was butter, too, for besides churning all our cream, Mama had borrowed two pounds from Mrs. Whitney.
“Could I have a handful of peas?” I asked.
I knew I couldn’t but might as well ask. “I am hungry.”
Pretty soon I asked, “Don’t they have a teeny-weeny bit?” Of food, I meant.
“They have very little. What would they eat when they have no garden?”
I thought Mama was going to spat me but she didn’t. Janie and I laughed and laughed.
Finally we came to a big ditch that crossed the road. Mama unhitched the team and let them drink. Then they browsed on the grass along the fence while we ate our picnic.
Soon after starting again we ran into broken hills with rabbit-brush and greasewood between. Then suddenly I saw the bridge over the Rio Grande. I could not see the river for it was down in the canyon. There were three mud huts back a piece from the rim. Papa said once there had been a trading post here. A Mexican lived in one of the huts and his dogs ran snarling and barking at us.
The bridge was high and black, and it was real scary when the horses’ clop-clop sounded on the boards. I closed my eyes and didn’t move. I didn’t want to look down at the water. It was too far down, but I knew it was green and ripply.
“If I fall it will take a whole year to hit the water.”
I opened my eyes and Janie was leaning over trying to see the water. I pushed her back against Mama and held tight to her. “No, sir,” I told her. “It wouldn’t take more than a day.”
Then I heard Mama take a long breath and I knew we were off the bridge. We rode through more rocks and boulders and then we came to the sand hills. The sun was oven-hot and we drank and drank from Mama’s waterbag. I wanted to eat but Mama said no. Then the next thing I knew Janie and I were both waking up and Mama was sitting between us. We were on the last hill above Eastdale.
“Look,” Mama cried, “there isn’t a green leaf anywhere.” She sounded real worried.
The sand crunched under our wheels. I could see a million diamonds sparkling in the sand, but Mama wouldn’t let me get any. She said it was just mica. We went down into the creek bottoms that used to be meadows, then up on a little bench and down it again to Miller’s place. Hattie and Albert ran to meet us when their mother opened the gate.
After we helped unload we each had a slice of bread and butter left from our picnic. Then we ran out to play. I liked having no water. The ditch bottom was covered with soft white sand that squashed between our toes. The willows along the ditch banks looked like queer feather dusters. The cows had eaten the leaves and bark up as far as they could reach. Brown dusters, of course.
When Sister Miller called that it was time to go for the cows we all went to the herd corral. Pete Moser had been herding that day and he had the cows there ahead of us. They were bawling and pushing against the bars. They were nothing but rough hide over bones. Their bags looked like they had already been milked. Pete was dusty and tired and his lips were cracked. Maybe no water would not be much fun after all.
We didn’t have to drive the Miller cows home. They just about ran, especially the last block, and their bags flopped back and forth spilling some of the milk they did have. Elmer, Hattie’s married brother, was at the well when we caught up with the cows. He drew water in a bucket from the well and poured it in a trough for them, but they still wanted more when he quit.
“Water is getting mighty low,” I heard him tell his mother. “The bucket came up half full each time.”
We had some of our new peas and potatoes for supper. After their first helping I saw Hattie and Albert look at their mother. Her lips went tighter together, but she gave each of us a small helping. She wanted Mama to eat more but Mama said no thanks she wasn’t hungry. I was about to ask for more, but I looked at Mama and changed my mind. I took back my wish about no water. I didn’t know why it had to be boss of everything.
When we had family prayers that night Sister Miller prayed for rain. I didn’t know her voice could be so soft. I got a prickly feeling all over and then before I knew I was saying the words right along with her. I wanted every place in the world to have plenty of water so every child could have more than one potato for supper.
We prayed for rain again the next morning, but so far it hadn’t done any good. The sun was just as hot and the ground just as dry as ever. Hattie and I drove the cows to the herd corral. Frank Hesse was taking the herd out today and his little brother, Jim, was helping get them started. Jim didn’t look hungry.
“We had potatoes and gravy for breakfast,” he boasted.
“Don’t be smart,” Hattie told him. “We gave you the potatoes.”
“No, sir, it was …” I swallowed hard so I would not say the next words. When Mama gives something she does not say who shall have part of it.
But we didn’t have potatoes and gravy for breakfast. We had nothing.
“We are all fasting,” Sister Miller said. Then she saw our faces. “It is the least we can do. People over the stake are fasting and praying for rain. The food they don’t eat will be sent to us.”
“But we already gave our share,” I told Mama.
“Emma,” her voice made me catch my breath, “you have given nothing until you have done without yourself.” I wasn’t sure what else that meant but it sure meant no breakfast.
Instead of Sunday School, they had testimony meeting, and it wasn’t even the day for it. It was a very good meeting, but they all talked about water. They started out by singing “Did You Think to Pray?” Everyone told about his many blessings. Old Grandpa Hesse said the people hadn’t been living right, and this was their punishment.
Elmer, who was conducting, for the Bishop was at conference, said we were being tried, and if we proved faithful the Lord would still bless us. I thought Grandpa Hesse might be right. Anyway, Elijah made the rain not come because the people were wicked. I sure hoped if the people were wicked, they would not have to wait three years for rain. That is a long time to be hungry.
When I came out of the little log meetinghouse the sun nearly blinded me and the gravel in the yard was hot through my shoes. Everyone looked to the sky, but there wasn’t even a baby’s hand-sized cloud. I was about to die by the time dinner was ready. Mama and Sister Miller didn’t eat. I heard Mama say she would bring more food next week.
“For goodness sake,” I said, chewing fast on my bread and butter, “we want some left for ourselves.”
Something happened to Sister Miller’s face, and right quick I was full up. I asked forgiveness in a hurry, and when no one was looking I put my bread on Hattie’s plate.
Later, our mamas said they were going to the graveyard and did we want to go along. It was on a knoll that was the driest and lonesomest place I had ever seen. Even the sand lilies were dead. There were seven graves and two of them were ours. I couldn’t remember our big brother, but I could remember what a sweet cuddly baby Willie had been. I held Janie’s hand tight. I looked at Mama. She never cries out loud but her face made me swallow hard. I looked around for something to do.
One of the graves had a hole in it. I looked all around the sky and kept looking. There wasn’t a sign of a cloud so I guessed a coyote had dug it, and we could fill a coyote hole. The grave belonged to some people from Taos.
We started by carrying dirt in our hands. That was too slow. If I used my bonnet Mama would notice mighty fast, so I decided to use my dress. Pretty soon we were all using our dresses. Albert scooped the dirt and we took turns having our laps filled. The dirt was so fine it scooped easy, but we sure looked a mess when we had finished and we were all choked for a drink. Then Mama noticed.
“That Emma,” she told everyone, “can think of more mischief. Next time, young lady, you will be left at home.”
“But, Mama,” Janie said, “if the Fishbite was going to bring someone alive we didn’t want it to be that one.”
Sister Miller didn’t understand what Janie meant, but she said water was getting scarce for washing, even.
I didn’t hear what else she said, for just then a big whirl of wind flew by and filled our eyes and noses with dust. By the time we were through spluttering and coughing, we were all shivering. Right in this hot weather, only it wasn’t hot any more. Then the earth tore apart with a crack that made us jump. We looked toward Ute Mountain. We could not see the mountain, for a storm of dust was coming our way like mad. Thunder crackled again and lightning split the sky. Beyond it came mountains and mountains of clouds.
“Oh,” Sister Miller said, and it sounded like a prayer.
I held my breath, watching. If this was the end of the world all these graves should come alive. I grabbed Janie as a big drop of water hit me right on the nose. I started to say, “It is raining,” but all the faces were being pelted. Sister Miller started to shake, and Mama set her down on a flat tombstone.
“It can’t be,” she said over and over. But even Janie could see it was, and we were getting wet. The dust on our hands and dresses had turned to mud.
“Run, all of you,” Mama called, and we ran. I held Janie’s hand, and Hattie held Albert’s, and we nearly ran their legs off.
Going to the graveyard hadn’t been far, but coming back, was a long way. The rain came harder and faster and thunder cracked like a mad dog at our heels. We stood around in the kitchen but kept getting colder so we went into the bedroom and changed our clothes.
When Mama and Sister Miller came they were walking like they were going to church. Their bonnets looked like draggled chicken feathers. They didn’t even scold us for making tracks all over the scrubbed board floor. After they had changed their clothes they set supper on. The rain was still coming down in sheets and every time Sister Miller looked she offered us more to eat. For once I really had enough.
The cows came home by themselves long before milking time. Sister Miller was talking about lighting the lamp when the meetinghouse bell began to ring. The way it rang it said for us to go there. Mama said she would put the children to bed, but Sister Miller said no, they must go.
So we went to the meetinghouse again. We ran and we wore coats, but we were nearly soaked by the time we got there. Elmer had a fire in the big stove and was lighting the extra lamps. We held our coats close to the stove so they could dry. All they did was steam.
When everyone was there Elmer said it was fitting that we give thanks for this life-saving rain. Grandpa Hesse said it would have to rain more than this to save the country. From all over the room people whispered, “It will. It will.” And it did.
Then we all sang “Now Let Us Rejoice.” Sister Miller really pumped the squeaky old organ and the voices rose ina mighty chorus. I had heard that somewhere.
It rained so long and so hard we didn’t get home until Wednesday.
When Papa was digging potatoes that fall Janie and I got plenty tired picking them up.
“There are too many,” I grumbled.
“Thank your mother for that,” Papa said. “All the cultivating she did with that fork brought a heavy crop.”
Mama was helping. Now she straightened and said, “No. It was the Fishbite.”
My mouth dropped open and I stared. then I saw Papa give her his special look, and she smiled as she does sometimes.