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Manuscript Rescued by Desert Angels from Freak Storm

by Deanne Stillman

For quite some time, I’ve identified with the Joshua tree, the wildly gesticulating plant that flourishes in the Mojave. I have communed with it often, finding both solace and an echo of instinct under its awkwardly welcoming arms. It taught me how to listen. Over time, it told me a story. The story was sad and haunting, with tones that occasionally soared.

It was about two girls who had been brutally killed by a Marine in the Southern California town of Twentynine Palms. I learned of the incident one day in a desert bar. Who were they? I asked. What were their names? “Just two girls,” came the reply. Just two girls. Learn their names, the Joshua tree whispered, and bear witness to their lives.

For the next 10 years, I followed a trail of tears deep into the Old Testament territory of the Mojave, from one wretched desert shack to the next. I learned that the girls were named Mandi Scott and Rosalie Ortega. I learned that the two had died together, and that in two days Mandi would have turned 16. I learned that Rosalie grew up in a hut in the Philippines and that Mandi was a descendant of gold miner who had come West with the Donner Party. I learned that the girls carried a legacy of poverty and violence that stretched back for generations, and I learned that, in spite of the blood jinx, they were heroes in their community, cooking for, playing cards with, babysitting the children of, making love to all the lonely young tribesmen who wandered the desert in search of connection — all the Marines, Crips, Bloods, vatos, bikers, dead-end kids — all the wasted souls of the American night who sooner or later make their way to Twentynine Palms, California.

It seems that all my life I have been wandering the desert. I grew up in the suburbs of northeastern Ohio, on the mostly frozen shores of Lake Erie. As a child, I would escape into a world of heat and space, a land that promised endless sunny possibilities. I purchased strange and delightful desert plants from a mail-order house called Kaktus Jack’s, a puzzlement to my mother when she would get the bills. I sat enchanted when my father recited “Eldorado,” the Edgar Allan Poe poem that began with the magical couplet, “Gaily bedight/A gallant knight,” and told of a mythical figure who traveled the sands, searching for a land of gold, ever wondering “Where can it be?”

One winter, I read all of Zane Grey, returning over the years to Riders of the Purple Sage, planning to join them one day and gallop across the chapparal. My mother, you see, was an equestrienne par excellence, and had taught me and my sister to ride when we were toddlers, passing along perhaps the best lesson of all: No matter what, life always looks better from atop a horse. Later, while I was a student at the University of New Mexico, I would begin to explore the American desert by foot and by steed. From the moment I saw my first tumbleweed, I knew that this peculiar and beautiful region would forever by my spiritual and physical home.

When not scrambling across playa and rock, I would visit the desert in the library: I wanted to live and breathe it in every way. Since my college days, Mary Austen’s book, The Land of Little Rain has been a constant companion. At the turn of the 19th Century and for the next couple of decades, Austen — an Easterner — traveled West and found her true home, among Native Americans in the California desert. “East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa,” Austen wrote, “east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders. Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the land sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears upon the maps, but the Indian’s is the better word. Desert is a loose term to indicate land that supports no man; whether the land can be bitted and broken to that purpose is not proven. Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.” For me, Mary Austen was the first writer to form a narrative of the desert, and it helped me understand my kinship with the terrain.

Once one comes to make acquaintance with the desert, the idea of a deadline for anything having to do with it is ludicrous. Even so, I signed a contract several years along my trail of tears, promising to deliver a book about Mandi and Rosie and their circle of friends — the rootless kids who lived in the Mojave town of Twentynine Palms, California — within 18 months. I would miss that deadline, and several deadlines after that, caught and transfixed by the desert that goes on forever and connects all stories of all people and all critters in one way or another and dares you to tell it when to stop. Finally came word from my publisher: Don’t miss the next book deadline, or else.

It was time to come in out of the desert, for a while at least. I had not been able to write about the night of the murders until I had finished my first draft. The murders were particularly grisly. Each girl had been raped and then stabbed 33 times with a kitchen knife. The killer had left his palm-print in blood above Mandi’s body. How had it happened? I sat through the trial and heard graphic testimony of forensic investigators, studied the crime-scene photographs, read and re-read the autopsy reports, thought about the night many times, during my waking hours and in my dreams. Yet I danced and danced around the writing of this chapter; I did not want to get inside the night, a place I would have to visit to complete my story, after all, the dark heart of my book. After venturing dangerously close to my deadline, I summoned the strength to reconstruct the events of that night. In writing about their lives, I had come to live with Mandi and Rosie for so many years after their deaths, it was now time to kill them again. The deed was done. I handed my manuscript off to Sonja Bolle, an editor I had hired to help me with revisions. I was spent and slept for a few days — I had committed literary murder.

And then the call came: my manuscript was ready. I raced over to Sonja’s and picked it up, prettily festooned with Post-Its containing notes I would type into the draft on my computer. The long cycle was coming to an end, and I put the envelope on top of my car and drove off, content. The manuscript was safe beside me in the passenger seat, I thought. But as I turned a corner, I heard something slide off the roof. I looked toward the noise and saw my book pages cascading into the streets, a flurry of white blown this way and that: a storm had just come in off the Pacific and was rushing up Wilshire Boulevard.

I jammed on the brakes and pulled up on the curb, got out and rushed into traffic, stopping it, directing it, darting in and out of cars and buses to peel pages off the asphalt, now covered with tire tracks and grime. But the winds were carrying the pages away; I was going to miss my final deadline. I watched my life’s work return to its source, and I started to cry.

And then came two angels. Looking back on it, I like to think they came from the desert, perhaps had been with me from that day in the bar in the Mojave when I first heard about the murders before I even knew Mandi’s and Rosie’s names. First, there appeared a woman in an SUV. She jammed her brakes in the middle of traffic and jumped out. “We’ll get them, whatever they are,” she said, and grabbed a page just before it was blown into a storm drain. “Everything is okay.”

She snatched a few more pages from the winds. But now another batch of pages was airborne. The two of us were overpowered, certain to lose this strange battle for pieces of paper in the middle of traffic on a major thoroughfare during a sudden and intense squall. But now came a second manifestation — an old lady with a grocery cart, a benevolent shrike with long silver hair and bony hands. “Don’t worry,” she said, and quickly pushed her cart with the bent and squeaky wheels down Wilshire, plucking pages from the winds, reaching, it seemed, between drops of rain. A little while later, she returned. She handed me a thick stack of paper. “See?” she said, and started to push her cart away: our connection was complete and it was time to go. I stopped her, ran to my car, reached into my wallet and returned, offering all I had — a $20 bill — wondering if I had blasphemed the moment with money, and then feeling awful as it was surely a small price to pay for such a grand gesture. She tucked the bill inside her scruffy jeans and faded back into the gathering fog.

It was pouring now. I got in my car and looked at my manuscript. There was every page, with every Post-It intact, some bearing splotches of grime and oil. But no matter; the notes shone through. My heart raced as I thought about the day’s events. After a few minutes, I pictured the desert as I often do when alarmed, and then began to calm, and then, as always, heard a message that was carried in my blood. The Joshua tree was right. I was supposed to tell the story of Mandi and Rosie. I revised my manuscript that night. The next morning I turned it in. Later, I returned to the desert, my source.

all material © Deanne Stillman, 2002 is a site