Rue Des Canettes: A Story of Paris

By Eugène Green



A little old lady pushed the door of the shoe mender’s on Rue des Canettes, and stepped from the September sunshine into the gloom of the shop.

– Good afternoon, Madame Coutzoukis, said the shoe mender.
– Good afternoon, monsieur. These need resoling.
– Alright for Thursday?
– You always work so fast!
– Well, my name is Soulier – and that means shoe.
– That can’t be a coincidence.
– You keeping cheerful?
– Everyone’s well. At my age, that’s not to be sniffed at.
– You don’t look your age.
– And yet I was born in 1900.
– You can rely on me to keep that quiet.
– I was ten when I left Greece, twenty when my husband and I moved to this street, and now I’m seventy.
– You’ve seen a lot of things in this world.
– Especially in this street.
– Has anything ever happened in Rue des Canettes?
– You were born here.
– I was born here, I might have ended up dying here, but we’re moving in June. For all the difference that makes.
– Why are you leaving?
– The landlord has sold up...
– No!
– It’s the sort of thing that happens all the time. I’m upset for my little lad, more than anything.
– He’s so sweet.
– Yes.

A group of people stopped in front of the window.

– What’s that? asked Madame Coutzoukis.
– That’s our local MP doing her rounds.
– Ah, that fairy! I can’t abide her!

The fairy Carabosse, the constituency MP, came into the shop. She was dressed in a yellow suit and a beige-cum-chestnut hat. Her entourage stayed outside.

– Good afternoon, Monsieur Soulier! she shrieked. Good afternoon, dear!
– Good afternoon, madame, said Madame Coutzoukis. Your colours are one step ahead of the trees.
– One must always be in the vanguard! replied the fairy. Isn’t that right, Monsieur Soulier? One must always charge with one’s head into the wind!
– The hatter will tell you otherwise. As for me, my business is feet.
– They are very important, feet.
– They’re useful, even if they no longer inspire much consideration.
– Times are very hard for craftsmen, said Carabosse. I’m fully aware of that. But you do know, don’t you, Monsieur Soulier, that I’m on your side?
– Yes, madame, so you’ve told me.
– At the elections, you must remember to support those who stand up for you.
– I’m going to be leaving the area.
– Beg your pardon?
– We’re moving in June.
– What a pity! said the fairy. Well, I wish you a good afternoon.
– I’m staying, though, said Madame Coutzoukis.
– Quite right, dearie! We’ll see each other at the old folks’ tea party, won’t we? When she had gone the old lady said:
– Well, I prefer the colours the Queen of England wears: at least she looks like a patisserie.

That evening, while Monsieur and Madame Soulier were finishing up dinner with their ten year-old son, his mother said to him:

– I hope you’ll make some friends this year, Thomas.
– My class is nothing but idiots.
– That’s what you say every year.
– Things will be better at secondary school.
– You should get to like people where you are.
– Next year I’ll go to school on my own...
– Yes.
– ... through the Jardin du Luxembourg.
– Would you like to watch TV now?
– No, I’m going up to my room.
– Close the door properly, then.
– Yes. Good night.

When Thomas had gone, his father said:

– The move’s going to hurt him a lot.
– Reality always hurts, replied his mother.
– But he’s only a kid.
– We were kids too, once...
– Yes.
– I went to Montreuil today.
– Where’s that?
– East.
– Near Strasbourg?
– Not quite that far.
– What did you do in Montreuil?
– I went to visit a house.
– Do you think you’ll be able to find a shop in the neighbourhood?
– There are shopping streets there. And I didn’t see any shoe menders’.
– Perhaps the people there just wear trainers.

In his sixth-floor room under the rafters, Thomas had opened the window and was looking out over the rooftops at the night sky. The moon was full, and even with the lights of the city a few stars could just be made out; there was a profound sweetness in the air that flowed into the room. Eventually the boy sat down at his small table, and after polishing off some homework got into bed to read.


At one point his mother knocked softly, then asked, through the closed door:

– Is everything all right, Thomas?
– Yes, mum.
– Don’t be too late getting to sleep.
– No, mum.
– Good night.

Thomas finished his chapter, put his book on the bedside table, and having switched out the light he fell asleep at once.

He woke up in the night. Something was moving around in the room, a light, limp object that was knocking into the walls and rubbing against the surfaces. After a moment’s fumbling in silence, the boy found the lamp switch and turned it on.

A bat, which had come in through the open window, was fluttering around in the room and banging into the walls, the door, the wardrobe.

The animal flew towards the child’s head, and he hid under the bed covers. Thomas felt its wings brush the wool that protected him; then, a few moments later, he looked out and watched the creature which was still knocking around at the far side of the room.

Eventually he sat straight up in bed and looked directly at the intruder with a gaze that no longer showed any fear. Without taking his eyes off the creature, he stood up and held out his right fist at arm’s length. The bat came and landed on it. Thomas didn’t react to the touch of its clawed feet and smooth, cold body. With his left index finger he began to stroke its wings.

– I have eyesight problems, said the bat at last.
– So I noticed, replied Thomas without missing a beat. You ought to wear glasses.
– I can usually manage with just my hearing.
– Why did you come into my room?
– I no longer have anywhere to stay, and when I feel day approaching – well, I have to go in somewhere.
– Where did you used to live?
– Place Saint-Sulpice, in the hollow of a tree.
– And someone filled in the hollow?
– Someone dug out a hollow, but it was for cars. And someone cut down the tree.
– I saw a picture of sleeping bats once, in a book.
– Does it surprise you – that we sleep?
– No. But I noticed that you wrap yourselves up in your wings, and that you sleep upside down.
– Correct.
– You can stay in my room, if you like.
– Your room’s too big.
– I can give you your own room.
– What does that mean?
– A hole in that big beam on the ceiling. It even has a nail in it that you could use as a perch.
– And this room – is it unoccupied?
– I keep a book for grown-ups and a few private possessions in there, but I could take them out. My mother is the only person who comes in here, and she doesn’t know about the hole. You need to stand on a chair to reach it.
– How will I get out of an evening?
– I’ll open the window for you.
– Let’s try it, then.

Thomas climbed up on his chair and took out the items he’d stored in the hole in the beam.

Then he said to the bat:

– I’m going to put you to bed.

He took the animal by its feet, let its head hang down and wrapped its wings around it. Then, when he decided the creature was ready to be put to bed, Thomas put it into the hiding place and hooked it on the nail.

– Good night, said the child.

He got down from the chair and walked over to the window. The sky was already starting to lighten. The boy got back into bed, his eyes sparkling, and let himself be carried to another world, from which he only emerged in the morning when his mother knocked on the door.


Since the bat had complained about the noise of the vacuum cleaner that Thomas’s mother used in the morning, the boy had shown it how a little wax pushed into each ear could guarantee undisturbed sleep. But this auditory adjustment and the electric light so unbalanced its natural reflexes that only Thomas, who kept an eye on the clock and gently woke the bat by blowing on it, stopped the animal being late for its nocturnal activities. Every evening, when the bat woke up and unfolded its two translucent appendages, the boy would unhook it from its perch, take the wax from its ears, dust its wings with a feather duster and let it out into the night. Come the morning, since Thomas slept with the window open on the latch, the creature could come in unaided, but its friend was always awake to welcome it, and after helping with its dawn grooming he would put it to bed in the beam.

One morning, when the bat slipped into the room, it landed on the boy’s fist and said:

– I’m hopping mad!
– What happened?
– I got called ‘bald chicken’.
– Who by?
– By a furry mouse.
– It just showed how badly brought up it is.
– We flittermice are the real mice! They’re just twitty mice.
– Names can’t be changed, but we can try to sort things out.

When evening came, Thomas woke the animal and gave it a present: a blonde wig he’d acquired by scalping a Barbie doll. The bat was delighted, and cured of its ignominious baldness set out to find the fluffy mouse that had insulted it.

Autumn gave way to winter. On getting in one morning, the animal said:

– I can’t stand the cold any longer.
– I’ll lend you a pullover, replied Thomas.
– No, there’s only the time-honoured solution.
– And what’s that?
– I’m going to sleep until the spring.
– Won’t you be hungry?
– No, I’ll feed in my dreams.
– I’ll put the wax in, then.
– There’s no need: when I go to sleep for the winter, nothing can wake me.


For a long moment the boy gazed at the animal on his fist, caressing its wings; then he took off its wig, wrapped its wings carefully around its body, and climbing up on the chair with the bat, hooked it on the nail, head hanging down, and wished it a good winter rest.

That winter Thomas went to bed much later, and spent his evenings reading or looking at a book of paintings. He never spoke to anyone about these things, but from time to time, before switching off the lamp, he would share a few comments with the sleeping animal.

One day in February, on getting out of school, he was met by one of his downstairs neighbours.

– Your mum had an appointment in the suburbs, she explained.

She took him back home, but Thomas, finding himself alone in the family apartment, went up to his room, put down his satchel and went straight out again. Walking from Rue des Canettes to Place Saint-Sulpice and Rue Férou, he got to Rue de Vaugirard, crossed to the other side and walked into the Jardin du Luxembourg.

There were very few people around. Thomas strolled along the deserted pathways, looking at the discoloured grass and the frozen earth; but he paid special attention to the trees, raising his head towards the branches, putting his hand on the trunks, and from time to time speaking a few words to them. He made his circuit slowly, with great seriousness; but eventually the park wardens, blowing trills on their whistles, forced him to leave the garden and return home, where he found his mother extremely worried.

– Where were you?
– The Jardin du Luxembourg.
– You know you’re not allowed to go out on your own.
– I wanted to see the spring.
– We’re in the middle of winter.
– We are, maybe, but the trees aren’t.
– If you want to go to the Luxembourg, I’ll come with you.
– I’m going to have to learn the route anyway, for next year.
– The routes one needs don’t need to be learned.

He mother went into the kitchen. Thomas, remaining on his own, went up to the sixth floor.

When he opened the door, his room was already sunk in darkness. He shut himself in, then, instead of switching on the lamp, took an electric torch and climbed up on the chair. The bat was still hanging from the nail, exactly as he had left it four months before. Thomas opened his hand in front of its body, and a smile spread across his face.

– Spring is in you, too, he said.


A few weeks later, when Thomas came downstairs at dinner time, his arrival triggered an icy silence. Madame Soulier disappeared into the kitchen, and her husband said:

– I need to talk to you, Thomas.
– Yes?
– The shop doesn’t belong to me, and I’m being forced to leave.
– You won’t have a shoe mender’s any more?
– Yes I will. I’m going to open another one, in Montreuil.
– What’s Montreuil?
– It’s what’s called a suburb.
– Why there?
– Because that’s where we’re going to live.
– But my school’s here.
– The school here is for children who live here.
– But I do live here.
– Next year you’ll live in Montreuil.
– Then I’m not going to school any more.
– Yes you will, Thomas. You will.

Thomas looked at his father for a moment, then left him and went up to his room, where he shut himself in with the light off. He stayed sitting on his bed for a while, then abruptly stood up, climbed on the chair and shone the electric torch into the hollow of the beam. The bat was no longer there. The boy jumped down, ran to the window that he’d left open and scanned the night sky for a long time. When his mother knocked to tell him dinner was ready, he answered through the closed door that he wouldn’t come down.

He got into bed early and, in spite of the cold, left the window ajar. From time to time he got up to look at the night sky above the rooftops, then went back to bed. He found himself still awake as day broke. When his mother came to call him he refused to come down, and waited a long time in his room without seeing a sign of the bat. That day, Thomas didn’t go to school.


The bat didn’t come back.

Thomas announced to his parents that he wouldn’t take his first communion, and stopped going to Sunday school. He also forbade his mother to come and collect him from school, and kicked up such a fuss that she finally gave in. At the end of the school day he got into the habit of going straight to the Jardin du Luxembourg, where he made the acquaintance of a candy floss seller called Mr Necroman, who explained that he was an apprentice warlock. Thomas questioned him about the bats in the area.

– It’s become impossible for a bat to find decent accommodation in the sixth arrondissement. But there are a few who come here during the night.
– Do you know any bats in particular?
– Why?
– There’s one I’m looking for.
– Back when I often used to change into a bat, I had a girlfriend. But if I passed her today, I wouldn’t be able to tell her apart from the others. What’s yours called?
– She didn’t tell me.
– Then forget her, she’s just a dream.
– No, I know her very well.
– Nothing exists without a name, said Mr Necroman.


One day in the month of May, Thomas left the garden later than usual and went straight to his parents.

– Where have you come from? Monsieur Soulier asked him.
– From the Luxembourg.
– You know you don’t have permission to go there on your own.
– I’ve given myself permission.
– And what about your homework?
– I’ll do it later.
– Mum has been summoned by your teacher.

His mother, who was present, looked at her son but said nothing.

– So? Thomas asked his father.
– You used to be such a good pupil.
– People change.
– People change all the time: they grow up, they grow wiser. But inside they must keep their character.
– In that case there have to be things outside that don’t change.
– You’re cross because we’re moving.

The boy stared at his father but didn’t answer.

– I have to go where I can work, otherwise how do you expect us to live?

The boy remained silent.

– In any case, said Monsieur Soulier, this part of town is no longer for people like us.

Thomas turned away to leave. This made the man very angry.

– I try to talk with you, and you turn your back!

Thomas turned sideways on to his father, and snapped:

– I listened to you.
– You didn’t say anything in reply.

The boy had already opened the door of the apartment when his father shouted:

– I forbid you to leave here!
– What is this – here?
– It’s our home.
– When you have a home, you don’t leave it!

Thomas left the room, slammed the door and went up to his room. Without switching on the light, with the window wide open, he looked outside where day was giving way to night. Finally he opened his mouth as if he wanted to let out a cry, but all that came from deep inside him was a terrible silence.


 In June, at the start of the first week of the summer holidays, Thomas went to the Jardin du Luxembourg every day. But on the Thursday his mother told him to come home early, because they needed to get ready for the move that would happen the following day. So he left the garden at around seven o’clock and, once he got to Rue des Canettes, stopped in front of the shoe mender’s. The light in the shop was already off, and a hand-written sign declared: CLOSED DOWN. While the child was trying to make out the gloomy interior through the glass, Madame Coutzoukis came up to him, and he raised his eyes to her.

– It pains the heart, said the old lady. Soon Rue des Canettes will just be a street of old canes – that’s to say, ducks!

Their attention was drawn by a small procession at the end of the street.

– It’s that horrible fairy Carabosse! said.

Madame Coutzoukis. I don’t know why she’s always poking her nose into our street!

The fairy-MP, dressed in a mauve suit and a pink hat, was surrounded by shopkeepers, politicians and journalists. This assembly looked on as workers hoisted across the street a banner bearing the legend: RUE DES CANETTES, PASSAGEWAY TO FASHION.

– For them, said Mme Coutzoukis, it’s just a passageway.
– I’m just passing through myself, said Thomas.
– No, said the old lady. You’ll stay.

Thomas looked at her quizzically, but her only reply was a smile, and then she left him.

He went back into his building and up to his room, where everything was in great disarray: the bed dismantled, the wardrobe emptied, his possessions packed in boxes. Only the mattress, that had been left on the ground for the final night, still bore witness to the years Thomas had spent between the four walls. For a long time the boy stood still and contemplated the room; then all of a sudden he flew into a rage and starting kicking the objects on the floor. While he was hammering on a trunk, someone knocked timidly on the door.

– Who is it?
– Mum…
– So why don’t you open it?

His mother came in, and closed the door gently.

– You’ve pulled everything apart, he told her.

He went and looked out of the window.  

– Thomas, his mother said to him.


He turned to face her.

– You’ve never wanted to come and see the new house, but you’ll have a very nice bedroom there, and there’s a real bathroom...
– I don’t care.
– We love you, Thomas.

He stared at her without saying a word.

– At Montreuil you’ll like it better than here, you’ll see… But you’ll have to get down to work again, and be a good pupil.
– Why?
– To get a good job... not like your father...
– Don’t you like what he does?
– It’s too hard. You’ll find something that’s not so hard.
– What do you know about it?
– Come and have dinner, she said.
– No.
– You must be hungry.
– No.
– I’ve made things you like.
– Eating is all you think about.

They stayed for a moment looking into each other’s eyes, then Madame Soulier left the room.

Alone once more, Thomas sat down on the mattress and gazed around him at the disruption of his room. He stayed there as the day faded, and when at last darkness had filled the room he collapsed onto what was left of his bed and ended up falling asleep.

When he woke up, there was a familiar noise in the darkness.

– I can’t see you, said Thomas.

A recognisable voice answered:

– You can hear me.
– Why did you leave me on my own?
– There’s a time for everything.
– And what now?
– It’s time to see.
– See what?
– Your street.

The bat’s silhouette appeared in the frame of the window and disappeared outside; then there was silence.

Thomas, who was still dressed, left his bedroom and walked down the stairs in the dark.

No light was visible under the doors, and nothing could be heard in the apartments. At an hour when he had never crossed its threshold, the boy went out of the building. But Rue des Canettes was unrecognisable.

Between the two rows of buildings flowed a river. Lush vegetation flourished along the pavements. The street lamps had disappeared, and only the reflection of the full moon lit up the dark surface of the water, where a large number of birds were swimming. Thomas was in the process of contemplating these creatures when the voice of the bat rang out in the dark above him:

– Your hand!

The boy lifted up his eyes, but the voice repeated in an authoritarian tone:

– Your hand!

So Thomas held out his fist, and the winged creature landed on it, with its head stretched out in front.

– Let’s go, said the bat.
– Where? asked Thomas.
– Across the water.
– I can’t swim.
– It doesn’t matter. Forward march!

Thomas stood still for a moment, then lifted his right foot and put it down on the water with all his weight. The foot remained firm on the liquid surface, so stepped on with his left.

– Forward! said the bat.

Thomas slid under the moonlight, cutting the surface of the water like a small boat, with the bat as its prow. From time to time he slowed down to let the birds pass, which continued to swim around without fear. When he got to the junction with Rue Guisarde, a spot lit up by the full brilliance of the moon’s beams, Thomas stopped and turned his fist so that he and the bat were face to face.

– Why has the street changed? he asked.
– You see it as it has always been.
– I never noticed the river.
– It was there.
– Where?
– In the reality of things: what one sees when one sees their names.
– Our street’s beautiful.
– Yes, it is beautiful.
– Tomorrow my parents are going to take me somewhere else.
– There you’ll find the truth, because you believe that truth exists.
– Why do I have to leave Rue des Canettes?
– Because you have to come back.
– Do people have to leave places they’re going to come back to?
– Sometimes. To understand where they’re going.
– That’s bat logic.
– A bat sees what it hears.
– So?

The animal put its right wing in front of its face.

– I can hear the sun, it said.
– If you have to leave, leave.
– Yes.

Thomas turned his fist forward again, the bat took off, and it climbed up following the line of Rue Guisarde. The boy raised his eyes higher and higher; but what he made out, getting more and more distant in the silvery light of the moon, was a large white heron, a bird he had never seen, and which gave a cry he had never heard, and which at last flew further away, somewhere to the east, where it disappeared from view.

Thomas remained motionless for a long time, his eyes dazzled by the cold light of the sky and the whiteness of the bird that had just disappeared.

Eventually he turned towards the other creatures he had seen on the water, toward what was real, according to the bat; but the river, birds and shrubs had vanished. The night was lit by the pallid glow of the street lamps, and at the end of the street, around a rubbish skip, the dustbin men were picking up the dustbins.

Thomas walked back to his home, across the tar of the roadway. He stopped in front of a picture, carved on the side of one of the buildings, of a duck and three canettes – that’s to say, ducklings – splashing around in the water. The whole thing moved: the ripples on the river shivered, the birds bobbed on the current, the aquatic plants trembled in the light breeze.

One of the ducklings plunged its head under the water and half disappeared; the mother duck stretched out its wings. Then the reflection of the sun, which made the image shiver from the inside, came from outside across the sculpted stone and plunged the scene into an apparent stillness.

Thomas went back to his room and sat down on the mattress on the floor. In the place where he had been happy, and to which he would never return, he watched the passage from darkness to daylight for the last time. Then his mother came and knocked gently on the door.

– Come in, he said.
– You’re already dressed!
– Yes, mum.
– Can we start with your room?
– Yes, mum.
– Come and have breakfast, then.

Thomas went downstairs with his mother, who asked the removal men to start on the sixth floor. She served her husband and her son, then went up to oversee the work. The boy was left alone with his father, who said:

– Are you alright, Thomas?
– Yes, dad. You?
– I’m alright.
– Are you not too sad to be closing the shop?
– I’m opening another one.
– You’re happy, then?
– That neither. I’m doing what I have to do.
– When people do what they have to do, they’re neither happy nor sad?

The father gave a little smile.

– That’s about the size of it, he said.

They finished their breakfast. Madame Soulier came back downstairs with the removal men, who started to carry out the boxes in the living room.

The boy went back upstairs on his own to look at his room.

He found the door open, and went in. The room had been entirely emptied; all that was left were the four walls, the sloping ceiling, the big beam. Thomas walked toward the light, opened the window and looked for a moment at the splash of sunlight on the roofs. Then, without closing anything, he left his room on Rue des Canettes, the street whose name he had seen, and left for Montreuil.

Eugène Green is a filmmaker, poet and writer. He lives in Paris.

Translation by Simon Cropper.

Images by Tereza Stehlíková.