Ethel: Chapter 4. The friend
Ethel had never seen an armadillo, not in real life. The kinds she had were in photographs, and had no sense of scale attached; all the same, she had not thought that they would be about twice her height, or have a liking for large summer bonnets. Still, it wore a friendly smile, so it could not be supposed frightening for all it was taller than her.
It was the colour of brandy, and the parts which were exposed to the sunlight oozed slightly.
The kindly creature nodded, as if content with what Ethel looked like when she was the right side up. The wide, white brim of the hat was bent down by a lilac ribbon holding it in place around her whiskery neck, which went very well with her toffee-toned scales.
“Well then, so that's what you are, Miss. You're a Miss, if ever I did see one, and I did! Once.” The Honey Armadillo frowned, slightly; “At least I think it was, but it was fairly far off at the time.”
Ethel looked a little perplexed at this; she had been referred to as 'Miss' before, certainly, but she never really understood was that meant (other than it was not a 'Ms', 'Mr' or 'Mrs', but then, what were those?).
“How can you tell that I'm a Miss?”
“Well, you're not from here, not a bit... and you don't look like you're from there either! And yet-” A claw tapped the ribbon-tied chin delicately, “-and yet you aren't from anywhere else that I can think of, and I can think of many, many places you know. No, no... You must be from where you were, and you aren't there now: so!” She clapped her paws together, triumphantly: “Surely you are A Miss!”
This seemed logical enough. It was for Ethel, at least, who had minimal requirements for logic at the best of times- and, seeing how pleasant this new acquaintance was, she supposed that was now.
“I came through: from the top side, or the bottom...?” Ethel looked at her feet. It was very hard to tell which way up was up, at this stage.
“I couldn't tell you much about it, I don't think I was there for long... but there was a great amount of sand.”
“Ah!” The Honey Armadillo nodded, shedding a few crystalized grains as she did so. “That, Miss, was Norway! For it is neither here, nor there, but it is the way between them.”
Ethel's voice made a pale “Oh,” of distant comprehension. This, at least, made some sense of the fireside couple's astonishment at her not knowing about where 'there' was. Although, in retrospect, she supposed that it must be There, with a capital letter, if it was a definite location; and Here must be the same. They could have told me as much, thought Ethel, or at least had the kindness to pronounce the capital letters more clearly.
She brushed her annoyance aside; “And this place-?” She gestured around herself. It looked a bit like a marsh, at this point, with the moss a deep navy and peppered with small, cobalt blossoms.
“Why, these are the Nether Lands; a world for all things beneath, opposite, and generally otherwise.”
Again, Ethel nodded. She had heard of these places already, but hadn't had any notion of where they were before, or how very peculiar they would turn out to be. Then again, perhaps people from Here, There, and these Netherlands would find her own little town to be quite strange. It was certainly different, so it stood to reason that they would be as much caught out by the number 13 bus as she was by them.
“I think those places are both in Europe...” she tilted her head to the side, mostly speaking to herself (she was becoming much better at it), “- and so is the place I came from, so at least I am not so very far away from my country as I thought, but... Oh dear! I didn't think to bring my passport!”
Her voice caught a tone of dismay; Ethel knew well that having a passport was very important, especially when it came to traveling between places in Europe, for she had been scolded for leaving hers behind on the day of the trip to France. They had been going there by train, and, as passports were usually things to do with ferries or airplanes, she hadn't thought she would need it. In the end they had not gone to Paris, but instead had stayed at an unseemly travel inn somewhere near Euston. Her parents had made the 'Ethel' face quite a lot that day.
Regarding her current plight, her rotund companion also looked grave.
“Dear dear, that is a pickle, a pickle indeed. Why, what if it were to rain? It does around here, you know- and you, stuck out in it, never being allowed inside a building again!”
“I'm not?!” The dismay was starting to wonder if it might do better as a case of panic. “I didn't know that- but, why?”
“Well, dear Miss! A door is a portal, you see- and you need to pass through it if you want to go into a place, don't you? That's what 'pass-port' is short for, you see."
Ethel did see, and felt a little stupid that she hadn't before; it seemed perfectly obvious. Her friend tutted in concern.
"Why, even if there was a door here, from one side of this hedge to the other, you wouldn't be able to go through it.”
Ethel considered the hedge. It was a feeble thing, and barely reached her middle.
“I think I could jump over it, at least.”
“Ah, that you could. You're a good one for jumping; you did jump into the Netherlands just now- I saw that.” The Honey Armadillo chuckled.
“Oh! So... perhaps I can make do without one?”
“Ah, but not so simple, not so simple- you see, passports are for more than for moving in and out of places, yes! You might need one of those to prove who you are, you know.”
Here Ethel had a quandary, for she wasn't very pleased with who she was in the first place- or least, who she had been told that she was- and proving that to be true was an entirely unappealing prospect.
“Then....” She began, slowly; “Supposing that I need a passport to prove that I am who I am... then without one... I must not be who I am, but somebody else?”
Her companion's snout furrowed, the lower lip pushing up into the hood of the upper in a pensive attitude, before she nodded in an enlightened way
“Yes, I suppose that would make sense! Then again, whether or not They will accept it I couldn't say, for I'm not Them, and what They say is generally taken for truth around here.”
This Ethel was able to believe. She had often heard people mentioning things that began with “They say-”, and accepting whatever followed as plausible or even factual, with very little explanation as to why. The Honey Armadillo nodded again, decisively.
“You will have to go to see Them.”
There was a sound of something unlocking, and then Ethel was no longer in the marsh with blue flowers.