She reaches down into the well, grasping the rope tightly with both hands. Every thread of the rope has turned brown and stiff with age. Inch by inch, new segments of rope come into view from the echoing depths, until finally a bucket mottled with rust appears over the edge of the well. She lifts it out with a certain tenderness and places it on the ground beside her. The well is dry, so there isn’t any water in the bucket.
Only a doll.
It’s hand-sewn, with brazen orange hair and two sparkling green buttons for the eyes. She is dressed in a tiny replica of a school dress with a pretty white apron, now stained yellow, tied neatly around her waist. The stuffing is poking out from the seam of one arm where the stitching has come loose.
She picks up the doll.
It’s much smaller than she remembers, but it still makes her smile. Even after all those years, Molly had survived; she was just as sweet and consoling as she remembered her to be. She turns the doll over in her hands, amazed by how little damage time had caused.
She remembers the day she had cast her favourite doll into the well.
The soldiers had stormed their home, helping themselves to their stores of food and any clothes they could find that might fit them. They scoffed her grandmother’s gingerbread biscuits. They took her mother’s jewellery and her father’s hatchet. She watched from under the staircase, clutching Molly in her hands as tightly as she could, petrified that they might see her and take her doll too.
She waited until they had gone to raid the stables.
When she couldn’t hear their booming voices any longer, she darted out into the part of the garden where no one goes. Hidden amongst the overgrown shrubs was an old dried-out well. It was the one truly secret place that she could hide Molly and be absolutely sure that she wouldn’t be found. If the soldiers decided they wanted water, mother would just take them to the normal well anyway; there was no reason to go to the old one.
She grabbed her father’s spare bucket. She tied the rope from the well tightly around the handle, and even did a double knot, just to make sure it won’t come loose. The rope was fat and tough, so it took her a long time to tie it. All the while she listened for the soldiers. Once the bucket was secured, she kissed Molly twice on each cheek and laid her down inside the bucket very carefully. She quickly picked some flowers from the bushes around her and put them in with the doll so that Molly wouldn’t feel so alone and frightened down in the well.
‘I promise I’ll come back,’ she whispered into the dolls fabric ear. ‘Don’t be scared, okay? Love you always.’
She gave Molly one last kiss before lowering the bucket down into the darkness. There was no way she could’ve known that she wouldn’t be able to return for her. Early the next morning, before the sun had even risen, mother helped them pack as many things as they could carry and they left their old farm, with its wild gardens and creaky floors.
After the war was declared over, they wanted to come back home. But then their old neighbour, Mister Timothy, said that the soldiers had come back and burned everything down. Not just the houses, but the stables and barns too. And the old mill. He’d said that there was nothing to come home to, not even the church with its great big spires and coloured windows. So she believed that Molly had perished too.
She lifts the doll to her lips and kisses its forehead.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispers to it. The sparkling green buttons look back at her without a trace of discontent.
She turns away from the well and walks back down the dusty lane. She can see her own little girl waiting for her beside the overgrown rose bushes, playing with a stick insect she had caught. She holds out the doll and nearly laughs when she sees how her daughter’s eyes light up at the sight. Her chubby little hands reach for the doll.
‘For you, Molly,’ she says, as she hands it down to her daughter. ‘Love you always.’