IN THE DUSK of a hot June evening in 1863, Evie Ward with her sisters and brothers and their little slave friends played Fox and Geese and Puss Wants a Corner until they were called in to prayers and bed. The night was too hot for sheets, but they slept soundly and woke to sunlight and a terrible cry of agony ringing through the house. "It was our Mother's voice. We sprang from our beds. No one told us what had happened. We didn't need to be told. We saw our Mother standing with a bit of a note hanging limply from her poor distraught hands." Her second son, like his elder brother before him, had just been killed. "Our Charley! Barely eighteen, shot in his own Virginia fields."
What it was to be a child living in the midst of an uncomprehended tragedy she remembered with preternatural clarity all her life and, when she was old, wrote it down for her great-nephews and nieces: "As a child I saw it. As a child I have to tell it." She was a natural writer. After the beautifully evoked account of her life between ages 7 and 11, her great-great-nephew Peter Matthiessen's Afterword comes as prosing and irrelevant. The intense, unself-conscious reality of her narrative needs no authentication or mediation.
Bladensfield was a big, unpresuming house in the Northern Neck of Virginia, built in 1690, buried amid orchards, woods and fields, and filled with people. There were the parents, their 12 children, some grown, some still babies, and their "people," the trusted slaves whose children were playmates of the little Wards. They picked apples and peaches and quinces to be dried for winter, gathered nuts, picked cotton to be dyed with bark infusions, spun by a slave and woven for their clothes. They had few storebought toys or dolls, but home-made rag dolls - "strings, families of them." In the autumn of 1860, their father went to Tappahannock, where he was to run a school.
Before the family joined him the eldest brother brought home news that Lincoln was president. This meant war - the end of their happy life - and Evie remembered watching the rain run down the window panes while tears ran down her cheeks. But once in the new house, in the daily tumble of lessons, chores and games, misery faded. Fort Sumter fell, but this was not so real as dancing without shoes and stockings under flowering plum trees on a warm April evening. Instead of Hi Spy and children played at drilling: shouldering arms and right-about-facing like the green troops they watched in the streets of the town, whom they could throw into a panic by dropping a bumblebee in their midst from the safety of a high althea hedge. Their father, now a major, drilled his regiment to the tune of a pink beribboned flute played by a mulatto - a regiment later wiped out in one desperate action.
A day came when their mother's long prayers were interrupted by a little son. "Mamma, you'd better stop saying your prayers and get up. The Yankees are nearly here." Gunboats were in the river and all the children, black and white, were sent out to seek refuge. They sat shivering in a barn while shells exploded, but when it was quiet again ate their picnic and went home to find the grownups packed for return to Bladensfield.
Back at home, the spring water was delicious; the bees were swarming, the arbutus blooming; there were minnows to catch and whistles to make of chestnut twigs; trunks full of clothes from earlier generations to dress up in; peas and beans to shell; French and drawing lessons from a self-styled Frenchman, Mr. Michelli; music lessons from Mr. Tepe, a German youth with a penchant for "making love" to his pupils, as Evie innocently describes it. They sang, white and black together - soldiers' songs and "darky hymns." "We were singing children. I believe singing is good for children; it absorbs their badness."
War seemed remote, almost unreal. One beautiful day in 1862 the children were gathering raspberries and heard a sound like distant thunder. It was the battle of Richmond beginning, and in it their handsome and adored eldest brother was wounded. Their mother found her way with difficulty to his bedside and while she was away they picked peaches, pared some for preserving and devoured others. Peaches and nosegays were sent to the wounded brother. But too late; his wound killed him. "Something awful had happened that ahd changed life. I remember how silent everything was. . . . If a dog barked, it was a shock."
There were no more candles, no kerosene for lamps. The children searched the woods for roots to burn; their father improvised bullets by dropping melted lead into cold water through holes punched in wet paper. The silver was buried under a cabbage; even clothes weren't safe and each child hid a bundle containing one change. When the Yankees finally came to Bladensfield - one of the Wards' "people" had shown the way under threat of torture; for this he was never reproached - it was their brother Charley, in bed with a fver, whom the Yankees found and carried away to prison. After a prisoner exchange he came home for a while, but no longer the gay brother he had been. The lilies were in bloom the night before he rejoined his regiment. "I remember the smell of the lilies, and how they gleamed in the twilight . . . Everyone tried to be cheerful, but it was hard." And then he was gone, forever. One of the sisters could play the piano beautifully: now "her music went everywhere, calling, compelling, quieting, uplifting." Everyone listened and grief a voice, made bearable.
The war did have an end. Richmond was surrended, afire, its streets awash with liquor. The children's mother went to bed and stayed there: "All she had lost had been in vain." Lincoln's murder followed: Major Ward gravely told them that the South had lost her best friend. The slaves were freed; they were offered their living quarters and wages, but within a year all had drifted away. The old house remained, but the world was changed. "I remember hearty laughs at awkward attempts to do unaccustomed things. I remember life bravely and cheerfully lived. We were young."
The little girl still intact in the old woman left a crystalline record of the struggle between the eternal now of childhood and the surge of events in which war swept the children of Bladensfield away, finally, from their games and singing, the smell of peaches, the chill blur of autumn rain, and the feel of bare feet dancing in the grass.