It is always so much easier to deal with numbers. They don't die and rot so you have to wear gauze over your face and peel skin off fingers to get the prints to tell who they are.

It is comfortable to think about people as numbers when you don't really want to think about them. In World War I they spoke of "wastage." During World War II, for 6 million Jews, it was the Final Solution.

You can say "6 million" and not feel a thing. You can say "911" and study the photographs of the bodies piled up at Jonestown, and it is a horror, all right, but an abstract horror.

How do you find a human scale for the Jonestown tragedy?

The story of these varied and scattered lives and how they ended in that steamy compound at Jonestown compels many of us to seek out parallels, references, some anchor that will make it seem more real to us. Some people speak of the bridge of San Luis Rey. Some start talking about an appointment in Samarra. It doesn't help. We are still left with all those converging fates, those lives so nealty wound up at the same time and place. The impossible mystery of why things happen anyway.

There were Maureen and Marlene and Christine Shannon Talley, who came to live with Helen Evans, and went to school in Long Beach and went to Guyana.

"They were little Irish Dubliners," said Helen Evans, their aunt. "They had good report cards. They went to church every Sunday -- Our Lady of Victory. They always wanted to help the underprivileged. They talked about how they wanted to live in the country. But the main thing about these kids was that they wanted to act as a family."

Marlene was quiet and dark-haired, "she came back home every day and studied." Maureen had "fiery red hair, with the disposition that went with it. She was always looking to do good." And Christine Shannon -- she was her aunt's favorite, Christine who loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian, joined the debate club and tutored the other students at the Catholic boarding school to which Helen Evans sent her.

"They were all beautiful girls," said their aunt. But their parents' deaths and the death of a much-loved grandfather seemed to mark them permanently. Their father had been a battalion chief in the Long Beach fire department, a man well-liked by his men. He died of cancer in 1960.Four years later their mother, Betty Talley, died as well, dropped dead in the street, the night before their eldest daughter's engagement party.

"They were hit every time they turned around," said Helen Evans. "And Christine simply refused to accept the fact that her parents were dead."

The fireman and his wife left five children. Maureen, Marlene and Christine went to live with their aunt in the small frame house in Compton, a lower-income suburb, predominantly black. The eldest girl, Michaeleen, was married within the week of her mother's funeral. The only son, Ron, got a job in a Long Beach liquor store.

In Helen Evans' home, there was a strict upbringing, a firm discipline, a planting of austere principles that were supposed to keep the girls from blowing away in those windy times.

"I believed you should do what you should do when you should do it," Helen Evans said. There was a 10 p.m. curfew on weekdays, 1 a.m. on Saturday nights. They were never late. "I was conservative, very conservative," Helen Evans said. "But I wanted them to have everything they needed, without too many of the fancies." Christine Shannon went to Europe with her classmates her sophomore year, came back glowing, the way young girls do when the wonder of the world first smiles at them.

"I tried," said Helen Evans. "I put 11 years into trying."

Marlene was the first to go. She had married the year she graduated from high school and was married for four or five years; it didn't work out. She had two young sons, she had no job, and she had very little money. She had always been very religious.

She was living in San Francisco in 1970, near the Peoples Temple. She told her aunt about the people there, and it may have been that they helped her with the food and support that living alone with two young children demanded. At the Temple they told her about the ranch in Ukiah, Calif., and she told her aunt how it seemed as if it might be a nice place to raise two young sons. She visited the ranch in the fall. In the spring, she moved there, working as a housekeeper in the compound there where retarded adults were cared for.

One by one, the others followed her, as quietly as leaves falling in a forest. Ron was next; he brought his ex-wife with him. And then Maureen and her former husband. Maureen went to work as a nurse in Ukiah, and Ron went to work for a large company there. Broken marriages and the hard scratch for money were buried, it seemed, among new dreams and duties in northern California.

Michaeleen had worked as a beautician after her own marriage broke up, until she fell ill and could no longer care for her two daughters. Her sisters came and took the children away. Michaeleen could not get them back. She too went to Ukiah.

"I was nervous all the time," Helen Evans said. "But back then, you remember those times, all the young ones were doing their own thing, they were joining all sorts of groups and religions, it seemed to be in the air."

Now there were eight of them together -- three of the sisters, their brother, the four children. They were united now, except for Christine, and every other week they would come to Los Angeles on the big crowded buses filled with the faithful.

The family would visit their aunt. They said little about the cult, using only the brightest of paints and the broadest of brushes to describe their new lives. And they would call, to urge their aunt to let Christine come to Ukiah, calling often from the time Christine was 14 until the time she was 17.

Sometimes, some of the other members of the Temple would get on the line as well and urge Evans to let Christine come to Ukiah.

"I didn't want her to go," Helen Evans said. "I wanted her to wait until she was old enough to make up her own mind." Besides, there were other considerations. The children had been raised on their dead father's pension. As they grew up and left Evans' home, the money reverted to Christine. By the time she was 18, there was $57,000 saved.

When Christine came close to reaching her majority, Helen Evans consulted with the school psychologist, the counselors. "I wanted to do the right thing," she said, and so she sought their advice. They told her, and she agreed, that it would be useless to keep Christine from the Temple if she wanted to go, that the harvest would be bitterness and resentment. Christine went.

"I don't think it was ever political with her," Evans said. "I think she just wanted to be with her brothers and sisters." Christine spent her senior year at the high school in Ukiah. Her aunt asked that her report cards be sent to her, to make sure she stayed in school. The report cards said she was doing well.

Christine turned 18, old enough to assume control of the $57,000. She wrote her aunt, asking her to have the lawyer transfer the money to the cult's lawyer in Ukiah. "I don't think she ever saw that money," Helen Evans said. "She didn't even buy a new car for herself."

Michaeleen was not very happy. "She didn't believe everything she was told," said her aunt. Michaeleen would leave the Temple and take her two daughters. At first, she would come to her aunt's house. After a while, she went elsewhere. "She knew," said Helen Evans, "that I would be the first one they'd call. They always found her." And brought her back.

Every year, on her birthday, Evans would receive a beautifully made card from Christine. She said she was well. She gave her aunt her love.

The nine didn't tell their aunt they were moving to Guyana. The first letter was from Michaeleen in August of 1977. "I'm doing well," it said. "We're growing all sorts of fruits and vegetables. I'm going to stay. I'm free and happy now and the girls are also with me and you know how important that is to me."

A few other letters followed, dry as the paper they were written on, sounding, Helen Evans later discovered, just like all the other letters that the relatives from other families received.

Last summer, there was a letter from Christine. "I'm the happiest I have ever been in my life," it said. "My family's close to me and I'm in a beautiful country where it's warm and green all the time... I have wonderful opportunities here... enough to keep a blossoming veterinarian busy... Our senior citizens seem to do so well. The sun gives them a healthy look... I wish you could picture the beautiful jungle."

It will cost $15,000 to bury the nine. Helen Evans does not think it fair. Now they have all been "officially" identified and the plans have been made to bring them back, to bury them in Long Beach.

Helen Evans remembered the day Maureen and Marlene came to the house in Compton -- for Christine. The old aunt took her niece into the bedroom. "I told her it was up to her to make the decision," she said. "I asked her if she wanted to go. She said, 'I guess I'll go.'" Just then, just as the question had been asked and answered, the two sisters walked into the bedroom. The conversation was over.

"Now that I look back," said Helen Evans, "there was no excitement in Christine's voice, no enthusiasm. I often wonder what she would have done, if only the others hadn't walked in, at that moment."

-- L.D.