PAULA HOUSTON WAS a wispy wraith of a girl with reddish brown hair and amber-colored eyeglasses who lived the 14 years of her life in that dark world inhabited by abused children.

Her home, if you could call it that -- and I advise that you don't, was a small, yellow, neat-as-a-pin bungalow located about seven miles as the country road dips and twists and turns due east of the tiny 200-person hamlet of Pope in Panola County, Miss. Pope lies alongside U.S. 51 and just off Interstate 55, an hour's drive south of Memphis.

There are six store buildings in Pope: one an active grocery, another jumbled with dusty and rusted "antiques" and four with windows boarded up. There is a brick Baptist church, a small brick post office, a tin-sided cotton gin that hasn't ginned any cotton in years and a small railroad yard with several stacks of pulpwood.

There is also a nine-grade, yellow-brick school building where Paula Houston went to school and found friends and surcease from her dark world of pain and want of love from her 37-year-old mother, Judy, who one day last June strangled Paula with Paula's own pink macrame belt. This was immediately after Paula's mother had beaten Paula's face almost unrecognizable.

Pope is part of RFD, Mississippi, U.S.A. It was founded decades ago as a railroad stop on the then-mighty Illinois Central Railroad. Freight trains still rumble through, and once in a while "The City of New Orleans" Amtrak wails disconsolately along the tracks, sobbing for lost youth and looks and glory.

Paula Houston never knew, except in the school books she studied so diligently (she was buried on the day she would have received four scholastic honors) about glamorous places along the Illinois Central line like New Orleans and Memphis and St. Louis and Chicago. Whenever Paula Houston's mother took Paula and her three youngest siblings into town -- town being Batesville, about five miles from Pope and one of two seats of government in Panola County -- she never let them out of the car.

For people like you and me who've been around and seen lots of places and things, Batesville, with its 5,000 or 6,000 population, isn't a whole lot to look at. The "old" town with the post office and jail and courthouse is kind of run-down, and the one-way streets coming at you from all directions are a pure fright to elderly strangers driving through. But the insides of the big new stores like the Western Auto out on State Highway 6, would have been a fairyland for Paula Houston.

The last time Paula left the house where she lived with her mother and father and her sisters aged 12 and 7 and her pre-school-age brother was that morning of last June 3 when her mother stripped all her clothes from her thin body except her bra (which she needed only because 14-year-old girls are supposed to wear them for modesty's sake if nothing else) and her panties and slung her body into the trunk of the family car like it was a sack of chicken feed and drove off to drop the little boy at a babysitter's house. The babysitter's two beagle hounds like to near went crazy sniffing and whining and pawing at the trunk of that car.

This was only a little while after Paula had risen early that morning, started a washing of clothes, fed the cat and the chickens, and then gone out in the pasture and found the calves and brought them to the barn.

From the babysitter's house, Paula's mother drove off to a town below Pope to see a doctor where she calmly read a magazine in the reception room. On the way back home she drove to the Yocona River (they call it "Yock-ny"), which separates the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta from the steep hills in that part of the country.

There Paula's mother stopped the car at the first of four or five places where people dump their garbage and junk down the steep side of the Yocona River so it can wash out into the Tallahatchie and the Yazoo and the Mississippi rivers and on into the Gulf of Mexico. She looked around to make sure that nobody was looking, and then she got out of the car and opened up the trunk and slipped off Paula's bra and panties and took her body out of the trunk and hurled it over the bank where it caught in some tall weeds.

All this happened about a month after Paula wrote a note (Paula wrote lots of notes) to a classmate asking her to buy a Mother's Day present ("not more than ten dollars, please") for Judy because "if I can make this work, maybe mama will be a little nicer to me." One of Paula's suggestions for a gift was a plaque which would read: "Lord, let me hang in there."

But the plaque was never purchased, perhaps because the friend's folks knew good and well that the poor child would never lay her hands on 10 whole dollars.

Paula wrote lots of notes to her friends by flashlight or by the light of her clock radio because her mother made her go to bed at darktime, many times with a supper of bread and water.

Reading Paula Houston's notes is looking into the tortured soul of a skinny little girl who wanted so much to be loved by her mother.

In one of them, she confessed that she had cuts on her right arm because her mother "sailed me through a barb wire fence." But she concluded the note by saying, "Don't have pity on me. I don't want anything but to be left alone."

And she signed that note "S. Beanpole." Her middle name was Susanne, and she was acutely conscious of how skinny-looking she was.

Paula seemed to be hungry most of the time. Some of her former classmates tell about how she would eat up all the food they left on their own trays in the school cafeteria and how they'd seen her polish off as many as three trays of leftovers after she'd cleaned her own. And in girlish vernacular, one of her classmates exclaimed, "Why she even ate the GROSS stuff -- like carrots and cole slaw, YUUUUCCK!"

Paula Houston never had a date with a boy. Somebody remembers that she once did go to a birthday party at a girlfriend's house.

But Paula was wise and worldly for all her 14 years -- wise and worldly enough to counsel an older classmate about how to handle a sticky situation involving a boy who was sweet on her: "Try to get to talk to him. If you get a conversation started maybe he will loosen up and talk . . . . If you are shy & tense he will be too. Are you going to talk to him tomorrow at recess? If you are why not rehearse what you are going to say to a stuffed animal or to his picture? I think it will help."

And there was the one written not long before her mother strangled her wherein she calculated precisely what grades on each subject the classmate would have to make in order to overcome earlier poor grades and graduate from the ninth grade. And she tendered some wise and worldly cautionary advice to the classmate on some notions that the classmate had confided to her about letting a boy that she was sweet on have his way with her.

Nobody seems to know just when and why the physical battering of Paula Houston began. Her father, Larry, complained to a reporter that neither the school nor welfare department people told him what was going on in his own house.

"If they knowed enough to testify against her, they knowed enough, and why didn't they tell me," he said to me. He said he never saw the bruises because "she wore long pants," and, besides, he was "working six days a week" and was only home four hours at a time, when he'd be in bed asleep, "a poor sharecropper's boy with a seventh-grade education."

Larry was off at work at a factory in a town some 40 minutes south of Pope when Paula was killed by her mother, according to the county sheriff. Judy would say later in her confession that Larry had returned home from work and was plowing the garden when she returned from the doctor's office and that he started "raising Cain" when he asked where Paula was and she told him that she didn't know. Judy said Larry screamed and hollered at her and got in the car and drove all around the countryside looking for Paula.

The Pope school principal recalls Paula saying once that her father "gave whippings when I need them but not anything like mother." Paula said her father would make her mother "quit." Judy said in her confession that just before she strangled Paula Paula accused her of "going with" the father of one of Paula's classmates. Larry told me: "Judy was upset, acting like my little girl was trying to get a divorce" for the two of them.

Documentation of beatings with belt buckles, hairbrushes and broom handles started when Paula was in the first grade at Pope and extended throughout the seven or so years she attended the school. (Paula lived in Texas and Kentucky for awhile before her parents settled on land that Judy's father owned out from Pope.) The beatings were reported by bus drivers, teachers, the school nurse (who took photographs of Paula's bruises) and the guidance counselor, and the reports were duly forwarded to the county welfare department by the school principal.

Dr. Carlock Broome has been the principal at Pope for 17 years. He is a man of slight build with full beard who possesses the firmness, gentleness and prescience required to be a highly capable educator of adolescents. When he agreed to talk about Paula Houston, he asked as many questions as he answered as if to assure himself that the questioner had a need to know. I liked him for that.

Carlock Broome recalled a critical day -- Oct. 23, 1983 -- when Paula Houston was brought to his office and told him that she had had enough of the beatings and verbal abuse and was ready to leave home. The county welfare office was notified, but the social worker was in another town attending a conference, and it was four days later before the local welfare director and the social worker came to the Pope school.

By then the door had slammed shut again on the dark world that Paula Houston lived in. This poor child who wanted a mother's love more than anything else had decided to give her mother another chance. Gentle Carlock Broome faults himself to this day for not bucking the "system" and for not taking matters into his own hands in spite of what Mississippi law says about who shall do what to whom.

Martha Lynn Johnson, who was Paula's guidance counselor at Pope school for five years, is a warm and handsome lady, and as I sat in her cluttered little closet of an office at South Panola High School where she now serves as vocational counselor, the grief in her eyes spoke as eloquently as her words as she recited the litany of cruel beatings and the frustrating succession of reports and reports and reports and reports and reports that never unlocked the door to Paula Houston's dark world.

We grieved together over those trapped souls who cannot bring themselves to find the door and flee their dark world because they are afraid even more, it seems, of other unknown worlds beyond.

The stuff didn't hit the fan until several hours after Judy Houston strangled Paula during the early morning of June 3.

That was when Mack Richardson, an old and bent black man, came with two cronies and started poking through the garbage and junk at the first trash pile on the steep-sided bank of the Yockny.

Mack Richardson was looking for aluminum cans, the sale of which supplements his only other income, a government disability check. Mack Richardson carries a large wooden staff with him. The staff helps steady his gait; it is good for poking into trash and killing snakes.

Mack Richardson peered over the side of the river bank and saw something lodged in the weeds below. It looked like one of those plastic things they use for displaying ladies' dresses in store windows in Batesville. It was covered with flies.

Mack Richardson poked at the thing with his staff. It was the body of a naked girl.

Mack Richardson went posthaste to the nearest house where there was a telephone which could be used to let the sheriff know what he had found. It is still prudent for the black Mack Richardsons to become disassociated as swiftly as possible from the dead bodies of little white girls.

Next day, Judy Houston told the sheriff that it was indeed she who had done this awful deed. Later she would tell a fellow prisoner in her jail cell that Paula was mean and deserved to die.

The agony of Paula Houston and the subsequent questions raised as to how all this came to pass in Panola County, Miss. have surfaced primarily under the byline of Hayes Johnson, an extraordinarily bright young reporter who roams north Mississippi for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

State legislators and jurists and bureaucrats and plain citizens throughout the state recoil in anger and shame and look at one another and ask, "How in the name of God did our 'system' permit this to happen?"

The "system" is identified in the minds of most people as the state's Department of Public Welfare, whose duties concerning child abuse are spelled out in Mississippi's code of law.

One general criticism has been that white social workers are afraid to go into black neighborhoods and black social workers fear confronting white parents. The department has been criticized for not hiring enough qualified people and for not training the people it has hired.

Some have snarled with bitter hyperbole that the state's welfare department is not competent to do anything but give away cheese. Actually, efficiency within the "system" seems to vary wildly from one county to another.

An internal investigation within the department acknowledges a great deal of departmental onus. During the coming weeks changes will be made. There will be organizational simplification and clarification of guidelines and hiring of more competent people and better training and improved supervision. Child abuse problems may even be taken away from the welfare department and the youth court system may be strengthened and funded realistically.

We know this is going to happen because some good people in high places in Mississippi have indicated they are angry and ashamed, and they are going to do something. And when good people in high places promise that needed changes will be made, we certainly should believe them.

For a decent interval.

But this will be too late, of course, to be of any help to Paula Houston.

I found Paula Houston's grave on a Sunday morning, the day before Judy Houston was brought to court in DeSoto County to be tried for Paula's murder. The judge moved the trial to the neighboring county because of all the publicity and strong feelings and such.

Paula is buried in the graveyard at Liberty Hill Baptist Church, not far from where she lived and died.

The horseshoe drive in front of the church was jampacked with cars that morning. The church is a white-painted wooden structure, and I could not hear the singing and praying and preaching inside because it was a cold day and the doors and windows were shut tight.

The church sits on the nose of a ridge which pokes out over a deep and wide valley, and Paula's grave is near the back of the yard.

Folks in the community have chipped in and bought a $500 tombstone and placed it at the head of Paula's grave. They gave so much money that some of it had to be sent back. There is a touching inscription carved in the stone: "IN GOD'S CARE." And underneath this announcement there is chipped out in the brown mottled granite this chilling Old Testament counsel: "To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heavens."

The mound of red clay has settled somewhat, and slender sprigs of bermuda grass are meeting and entwining.

Earlier that morning several violent thunderstorms had rumbled and roared out of Arkansas and across the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta and into the steep hills, and at the moment I stood above Paula's grave a residue of dark, brooding clouds swirled overhead. A chill wind whistled up out of the valley, and the fallen brown leaves from the great oak trees rasped as they leapfrogged along the ground in sudden, sneaky spurts .

I have witnessed through three wars during my lifespan the mindlessness of man's inhumanity to man, but I've never been so disgusted as I was that Sunday morning when I stood above Paula Houston's grave looking down at the $500 tombstone and a spray of pretty pink flowers that leaned against it.

Dear, sweet, skinny little Paula Houston had finally found freedom from her dark world.

In a hole in the ground at a place called Liberty Hill.

EPILOGUE: On Dec. 7, a jury of five women and seven men sentenced Judy Houston to die. She has appealed.