Here is a Christmas story I pulled together based off a picture I took while visiting Paris this October.
A Nutcracker in Paris—by Daniel Cossette
The Nutcracker awoke flat on his back looking at the sky through a rectangular tunnel. For a moment it felt like he was moving, sailing under the clouds, but then he realized that it was the gray clouds that were moving swiftly by and he was lying still.
“Ohhh, my head,” said the Nutcracker. In a moment it all tumbled back to him like a pile of blocks. It was two days before the Joyeux Noel, and they had just arrived in the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris. They had all unpacked, and the cast and crew had gone to their hotel. The Nutcracker was left to guard the theater, with a few of the other toys, and the rowdy mice.
That was when it had all gone horribly wrong. The theatre was always a magical place, where the unexpected usually occurs, but the Mouse King’s betrayal had shocked even the Nutcracker. He had been on patrol between the loading dock and backstage when, under the glow of the exit sign, the mice had surrounded him. “Say adieu, Nutcracker,” crowed the Mouse King, “this is the last time you will dance with Clara and the Sweets! This Christmas she is mine!” And they had thrown a tarp over him, and bumped him severely on the head.
The Nutcracker couldn’t remember anything after that. He did not know where he was, or how he had gotten there. His beautiful blue uniform, with the shiny gold-paint buttons, was chipped in several places. His fuzzy gray hair was damp; and he felt very stiff.
“That was quite a fall you had,” said a quick, tired voice behind him.
“Who’s there?” asked the Nutcracker, surprised. He tried to crane his neck to see the speaker.
“My name? Not that it matters here, but my name is Roitelet.” The Nutcracker propped himself up on his elbow and looked, despite his aching head. There atop the corrugated steel roofing was a toy horse. He was a chestnut brown, with a white stripe down his nose. He looked young and valiant, the wind in his mane, but he stood as still as a statue as though moving had ceased to be useful long ago.
The Nutcracker looked around at the rest of their surroundings. They were in a light well, enclosed on four sides by weathered cream walls. The rendering was poorly painted. Several thin potted plants sat in neglected bunches, any thought of flowers forgotten with the long absence of care. On one side there was a window into a small room of a house. The Nutcracker could only see bookshelves with books of all sizes inside.
“Where am I?” asked the Nutcracker.
“The Close of Forgotten Dreams,” sighed the toy horse.
“How did I get here?” asked the Nutcracker.
“You came from the roof, in your tarp,” answered the horse. “You have been asleep most the day.”
“What day is it?” said the Nutcracker, beginning to panic.
“It is Friday, I believe. Christmas eve.”
“Where is the theatre? I have to get back!” The Nutcracker was on a flat grate, protecting a smoky glass roof light below; he swung his legs off the metal edge to dismount.
The toy horse laughed unhappily. “You won’t get out of here so easily! I’ve tried. I’ve been here for longer than I can remember. I was a soldier’s horse; a general rode me. But one day my general broke when Jean-Louie, the boy who owned us, played too rough. He cried and cried so much that his mother put me out here so he would forget, and gave him a toy car instead.” The horse shook his head sadly. “I have not been played with since. And we cannot get out.”
“But you don’t understand!” cried the Nutcracker, “I am dancer on tour with the Christopher Rêves Ballet Company. Tonight I am supposed to dance with Clara! It is our last performance before Christmas. The horrible Mouse King has always been jealous, for he is the villain. But I never thought he’d tried something like this!”
“Who is Clara?” asked the toy horse. “Is she another toy?”
“No,” said the Nutcracker proudly, “She is a dancer, from New York!”
“A dancer?” exclaimed the horse, “A human dancer? How can a nutcracker like you dance with a human? You know humans are not allowed to see us moving!”
The Nutcracker was trying to see further through the window, but all he could see was books. But he turned to the toy horse and said, “Don’t you know? In the theatre, anything can happen!” The Nutcracker could see a latch on the window, high above his head. “I think I can reach it, with help,” he said.
The horse looked at the Nutcracker strangely and shook his mane. “Well I doubt you can get there in time. I’ve never gotten out of this light well. And I don’t see the point. Even if we could get out, I do not know the way to the Théâtre de la Ville. Besides, how can you save a dancer from an evil mouse king?”
“I am not just a dancer,” said the Nutcracker turning to face the toy horse, “I am also a soldier.”
At this Roitelet stamped his front hoof. His ears pricked, and he reared back on his hind legs for joy. “You are a soldier?” he practically shouted.
“Yes,” replied the Nutcracker.
“And you need to fight the Mouse King?”
“Yes. And a battalion of his mice minions.”
The toy horse put all four feet on the rusted steel roof and pawed at it with his hooves. “Then I shall help you. I’m sure together we can figure something out.”
“Well,” said the Nutcracker, “If we can just reach that latch perhaps we can get into that house.”
Roitelet trotted over and looked. “The latch is very high. And that’s not a house, it’s a bookshop. It’s called Shakespeare and Company, and there are many people who go in and out. Mostly tourists, come to the city. We should wait ‘til its dark, and they are closed.”
“By then will be too late. We have to find the theatre, and stop the Mouse King before tonight, or the Réveillon de Noël performance will be ruined, and Clara will be captured by the mice—who knows what will happen!”
Roitelet had been cooped up in the Close for a long time. But he was a warhorse, and he had not forgotten his courage. “Then this bookshop shall be our first challenge. Because you know we can’t be seen moving here, even if the theatre is such a magical place as you say.”
“I know,” said the Nutcracker, “Here. Help me up.”
Together they got the Nutcracker high on Roitelet’s back. And the Nutcracker reached for the latch. “Can you get it?” asked Roitelet.
“No, but hang on.” The Nutcracker reached to his belt and drew his saber. With a long stretch he pushed the sword up, up… and knocked the latch free!
“Hurrah!” cried Roitelet, as the window cracked open.
“Now we must be careful,” said the Nutcracker, gently pulling the window open. He and Roitelet stepped onto the sill, and looked carefully left and right. It was a little hall. With shelves everywhere; books were stuffed into every nook and crevice. To their right was small reading room with more books, and leather chairs where a few human tourists sat, engrossed in important reading. To their left was a little stairwell, covered with more books, as though the whole building were made of bindings and pages, rather than bricks and timber.
“First we must get out of the shop,” said Roitelet. “I know the way. Follow me.”
They stayed close to the wall, and carefully climbed down several large steps. For a human the steps were quite steep; the toy horse and the Nutcracker had to lower themselves down one at a time. Part way down they could peek around the banister, and to their dismay saw that several humans were in the shop, poking through the selections of books, and one stood behind the till watching everything.
“That’s the way,” said Roitelet, pointing his nose towards the little door to the rue beyond, “but how will we get there? There’re too many people.”
“I don’t know,” said the Nutcracker, setting his square jaw, “but we have to try. Perhaps if one of us distracts them, the other can get through.”
“Try opening that big door by yourself,” said the toy horse, disapproving.
“Too many people?” blustered a deep, fluttery voice behind them. “Need a distraction!”
The Nutcracker and toy horse turned to see that it was a large, black, leather-bound book with gold lettering, which read Three Works by Charles Dickens, which had spoken. Neither of them could say how, but they both knew the book was looking at them.
“Did you just speak?” asked the Nutcracker.
“Of course!” said the book, flapping his pages, “Book shops are magic you know! Most of us can come to life, and more than one of us are good for little else than distracting! I, for one, love a good joke!”
“If you would just help us…” began the Nutcracker.
“Say no more,” said the Three Works by Charles Dickens, “Let this old Dodger do it’s trick! The fiction section will be more than happy to oblige…!”
Somehow the old book gave a sharp whistle. Then, across from the stairs, on the lower level, an entire shelf of books (that had the room to move) stood up straight! There was a good deal of pages shuffling that sounded like laughter, and suddenly several books jumped off the shelf! One fat J.R.R. Tolkien book hit a pile of children’s stories that was standing nearby. They all tumbled over with a hundred thuds, and many snickering pages.
Immediately every human in the shop leaned to look, and the one behind the till came scurrying around. Several moved to help clean up the pile of books who were still trying to contain their giggling. “It’s now or never!” said Roitelet, and the toy horse and the Nutcracker leapt down the steps and darted under the feet of the distracted humans. Just at that moment the door opened with the ding of a bell, and the Nutcracker and toy horse shot through the opening under the bulging bag of a tourist.
“Where are we?” asked the Nutcracker.
“As I recall,” said Roitlet, “this is the Rue de la Bûcherie. Number 37 to be precise,” he said, craning his neck to look back at the door of Shakespeare and Company bookshop. Before them was a cobbled cycle path, and row of short bushes and well-kept trees.
“Where now?” asked the Nutcracker, looking up and down the street. There were humans here and there, walking and shopping, but fortunately none too close. The day was gray, and most humans had hurried home or were busy finishing their shopping for the celebrations to come.
“If I recall, when I first came here, there was a cat nearby. She might be able to help us!” Roitelet started off at a quick canter, and the Nutcracker had to run to keep up. “Oh, it feels good to stretch my legs again!” said the toy horse.
Just around the corner, and a few shops down, Roitelet stopped suddenly. “I don’t see a cat…” began the Nutcracker. But the toy horse was looking up at an old poster in a shop window. There sat the Chat Noir, her green eyes peering out mischievously.
“Chat! Oh, Chat,” called Roitelet, “Do you know the way to the Théâtre de la Ville?”
To the Nutcracker’s surprise the cat looked down at them and stretched, purring. “Why do you need to go?” Cats are never forthcoming.
“We have to get to the ballet!” answered the Nutcracker, “We have to save Clara and the Réveillon de Noël performance!”
The Chat Noir yawned lazily, “I do not know the way,” she said, flicking her tail, “But I can tell you who might. But what do I get?”
Roitelet stomped his hooves, “Why do you have to get anything?”
“Because, I’m a cat,” replied the Chat Noir, “We always want something!”
“Please,” said the Nutcracker, “If we don’t make it in time, the Mouse King and his mice will kidnap Clara, and then who knows what they will do!”
The cat’s ears pricked suddenly. “The Mouse King.” She flicked her tail back and forth in two quick snaps. “I know this mouse of which you speak. Why, he taunted me with his ruffian crew just last night, scurrying by with a big tarp package.”
“Yes! That was me in his tarp!” said the Nutcracker, “We have to stop him. Will you help us?”
The cat arched her back, “I can do better than that. I can tell you which way they left.” She angled her head and said, “Head back to Quai de Montebello. There you will see the River Seine, and across it the Cathedral. The mice went that way.”
“You’re very helpful!” said the Nutcracker as he and Roitelet turned to go.
“Bring me a mouse tail,” purred the cat.
The Nutcracker and the toy horse ran towards the river. “I know what cathedral she was talking about,” said Roitetlet, “It’s very famous.”
“I do too,” said the Nutcracker. Just then, they could see its double bell towers, standing above the heads of the surrounding buildings: it was Notre Dame.
“It will not be easy to get to,” said the toy horse. “It’s not as close as it seems! Two streets, and a river away.”
“We have to try,” replied the Nutcracker. They climbed through an iron fence and hid in the bushes of a small square with a statue in its middle. “We’ll have to time it just right.”
“Wait for an automobile to stop,” said Roitelet. Suddenly a black Mercedes taxi did stop, right in front of their hiding spot. “Now!” said the horse. Together they dashed under the front wheel, and half-crawled to the other side. The wide street was before them, and several humans were crossing the street in front of the shiny Mercedes. As the humans passed, the Nutcracker and horse skipped from beneath the second tire, just as the car began to roll forward. They jumped up the opposite curb and ran down the sidewalk to hide once again, this time behind an art vender’s stand.
“We’ll never make it across that bridge unseen,” whispered the Nutcracker. There were far too many people going and coming from cathedral plaza.
“Here! Follow me.” The toy horse scurried around the corner and between the poles of the brown, metal railing of the bridge. There was just enough room on the other side for a toy. The Nutcracker climbed over behind the horse and held tightly to the fat metal poles. Below them and to their left the green river moved by, silent and dangerous; it was as busy as a merchant, and constant as business; majestic as a king, and foreboding as a judge. The Nutcracker walked from banister to banister, hand by hand, glancing nervously at the water below. He followed slowly along behind the toy warhorse, who trotted easily. Once across, they waited for a moment, and dashed across the little street to duck beneath more bushes. It was nearly evening.
“I don’t see any sign of the mice,” said the Nutcracker, staring across the large plaza filled with people. The colossal cathedral stood above them all, monolithic, and covered with saintly eyes. Thousands of statues stood above the doors, angels and saints, gargoyles and creatures. “Maybe one of them has seen the mice. But we’ll never get there with all these humans about…!”
Roitelet was not paying attention. His eyes were fixed in the other direction. There, apart from the cathedral, not far from the trees and bushes where they hid, was a huge green rusted statue of a mighty king on his horse, and two warriors beside him. “It’s Charlemagne and Tencendur,” breathed Roitelet reverently. “We have to see them!”
The two friends ducked their way through the bushes, over roots, and under stems. Finally they stood equal with the mighty king and his majestic warhorse. The king and his noble servants towered above them on a gray stone pedestal. “Excuse me,” the toy horse said in a small voice.
The king, his charger, and the closest warrior, all turned their heads with regal forbearance.
Roitelet’s voice stuck in his throat, so the Nutcracker, suddenly feeling very small, bowed deeply, and asked, “You majesty, we are looking for some mice. They came this way, we are told, and they intend to kidnap Clara and ruin Christmas Eve. Have you seen them?”
Roitelet found his voice, “We have to find them, and stop them.”
Charlemagne did not speak. But Tencendur tossed his green mane, and chewed his bit. The closest warrior inclined his head to see his lord, and the great king gave a grave nod. With the creaking of ancient bronze the warrior lifted his sword to the sacred cathedral, and gave a low whistle, that even the Nutcracker and Roitelet could barely hear.
In a moment, something that looked like a bird came from behind the rightmost bell tower of the cathedral. It swooped towards them, diving through the trees, and landing in front of them. It was a small copper-green ox (small compared to Charlemagne and his servants) with eagle’s wings on its back. Charlemagne nodded again. And, somehow understanding, both the Nutcracker and Roitelet climbed from the bushes and mounted the copper ox’s back. With a metallic bawl, the ox beat its wings, and they lifted from the paving stones into the air.
Through the trees they ascended, and suddenly the plaza was a terrifying drop below them. The expansive courtyard dipped behind them, and they rushed towards the enormous wall of the holy church. Dozens of saints lifted their heads to watch and angels laughed as the Nutcracker and horse were carried in a twisting circle up the face of the bell tower, and suddenly the broke over the top! Paris fell away before them in all directions. The sky was darkening, and already lights were pricking to life in the streets and windows across the city. To the Nutcracker and horse it was like being on a mighty table with just a few arrow spires, like gigantic salt and pepper shakers, between them and the city floor below. On top of Notre Dame there were even more saints statues, and a few gargoyles, as though gathered in mighty conference, discussing matters of heavenly importance, and passing to and fro on the patchwork leaden roofs.
The copper ox brought them to the foot of the rightmost arrow. There three apostles stood in a row, also of copper greened with age, looking out over the city. Luke the Evangelist, friendly and in humble robes reached a copper hand to pat the ox’s head. “What have we here?” asked the evangelist.
“Please, sir,” said the Nutcracker. “We are from the ballet. We must get back to the Théâtre de la Ville, in time for the Réveillon de Noël performance tonight! The mice attacked me and threw me out. Now no one is there to lead the toy soldiers, and I am afraid what the mice will do to Clara! Can you help us?”
“Ah yes,” said Luke the Evangelist, bending his copper head seriously, “Word has reached us up here of these raucous mice. They were seen by the saints as they passed this way, just last night!”
“Can you tell us which way they went?” asked Roitelet.
“I can. And I can tell you where the Théâtre de la Ville is. It is not far by human standards, but you will be hard pressed to get there before the evening performance on foot without being seen.”
“Which way is it?” asked the Nutcracker and toy horse together.
“West,” replied the evangelist. “But you must cross the northern arm of the river first, and then follow the waterway all the way to the Fontaine du Palmier. You will know it when you see the golden angel with two wreaths of victory across from the Palais de Justice.”
“I know of the Palais!” exclaimed Roitelet. Then his voice fell, “We’ll never make it on time.”
“Not on foot, perhaps,” said Luke the Evangelist, stroking his beard, “but the angel of victory is very particular of the place she guards. It will be dangerous at night.” Here the evangelist knelt and patted the copper ox again, “Can you bring them?”
The ox snorted, and flapped its wings ‘yes.’
“Good,” said the copper apostle. “Then go in la main de Dieu.”
The sky grew darker, and the air cold as the sun disappeared under the western skyline of the city of Paris. The copper ox leapt into the air and the Nutcracker and Roitelet held on for dear life as the creature lifted them up. Below them the bells Notre Dame and voices of the saints lifted in a bénédiction, a deep triad chord of blessing. Then off they spend, over the Île de la Cité, across the second branch of the River Seine, and west along its northern bank. The copper ox flew low, behind the cover of the line of trees that followed the road and river. City blocks floated past. Then suddenly they were above a square, and in it was a fountain, and a tall column. Atop it stood the golden angel: Victory, in gilded bronze.
No sooner had they seen her than her clear loud voice rang in their ears, “Who flies o’er the Place du Châtelet? I keep Vigil over this fountain, with Strength!” and she lifted her two wreaths. “I give water to the people with Prudence. Who flies o’er my fountain?”
The cooper ox hovered about fifteen meters from the angel, her blazing gilded eyes holding them in flight like a fly caught in amber.
“Please,” said the Nutcracker, “We must enter the Théâtre de la Ville, and stop the Mouse King from harming Clara!”
“Then you must pass the test of Justice,” replied Victory. “Pass through my two wreaths if you can, at the same time, or fall to the sphinxes below!”
They looked down, and at once the four Egyptian sphinxes at the base of the fountain gnashed their teeth, sending sheets of water splashing. They prowled around eagerly, and clawed at the foot of the roman column upon which the angel stood.
Without waiting for a reply the copper ox snorted and dove forward. The nutcracker and toy horse cried out in terror, as the ox bucked high then twisted! Instantly they were upside down, and both the Nutcracker and Roitelet lost their grip and fell! One through the first wreath and the other through the second, exactly at the same time.
Water came from the Nutcracker’s eyes as he fell towards the snapping sphinxes, Roitelet just beside him, but the clever ox dove between them, and swooped them up before the splash of the sphinxes’ jaws could nip their toes.
“You may pass!” decreed Victory. And the copper ox circled down to the ground, landing on the sidewalk before the theatre.
“Thank you,” said the breathless Nutcracker to the copper ox. Roitelet was laughing so hard he could not speak. The ox bobbed its head and gave a copper bellow. Then it pounded its wings and climbed back into the night sky.
“Now we must hurry!” said the Nutcracker, “Follow me!” He ran around the back of the theatre, the toy horse following.
“How will you fight the mouse king? He’s beaten you before. In fact, how will you be big enough to dance with Clara the ballerina?” asked Roitelet, who was a very practical little warhorse.
Up to the loading dock they ran, and the back stage door which was ajar for the performers to come in and out. In reply the Nutcracker only said, “That’s the music for the overture! We must hurry!” They rushed inside. Human dancers in tights and sparkling costumes were walking all around, but no one paid them any mind as they were all stretching or putting on sparkling eyelashes the size of massive spiders. “We have to get ready to perform!” said the Nutcracker.
“There you are!” shouted a toy soldier. He was skinny and made of tin, with little red circles painted on his cheeks, “We’ve been looking for you all day! You missed rehearsal!”
“I know,” said the Nutcracker, “but you wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had.”
“Well come on!” said the toy soldier, “We have to get you ready. You look terrible. Get us some fresh paint!” he shouted. More tin soldiers appeared and started rushing around. The soldier continued, “The mice have been acting strange all day; they laughed when you weren’t here for rehearsal, and the Mouse King has been mean to all the toys all day!” Suddenly he saw Roitelet. “Who is this?” he asked.
“He’s my friend,” answered the Nutcracker, “ We’re changing the show tonight. Get him ready to go on!”
“A horse? In a ballet?” they all asked in surprise.
“A theatre is where anything can happen!” said the Nutcracker.
Then the show began.
Roitelet had never been to a ballet before, and for sure he had never seen the story of the Nutcracker. He watched as his friend was presented to Clara by her mysterious uncle at the Christmas party. He stood in the wings of the stage and watched as all the humans laughed and danced, while the toy soldiers hurried to fix the toy horse with a saddle and reigns. Then, to Roitelet’s amazement, Clara’s uncle brought out more toys: and they grew! To full human size! Then Roitelet began to understand the magic of the theatre. As he watched, the toys danced for Clara. Then, when all the party guest dancers left the stage, and all had gone to bed, except Clara, the most wonderful thing happened: the Christmas tree began to grow. And as it did, so did all the toys! And so did Roitelet!
Suddenly a breathless, tall, handsome, human Nutcracker stood before Roitelet. He had soft black leather boots, white leggings, and a blue uniform with shiny brass buttons. He held a sword in his hand, and his jaw was set square and firm. But his eyes were alight with energy. “Come, my friend. Now is the time.”
Roitelet was ready. He was now taller than the stage manager (who was very surprised to have a horse backstage!). Both Roitelet’s flanks brushed the velvet, black curtain wings on either side of him. “Mount up, my friend,” said the war horse.
Then, on the stage they could see the full grown Mouse King and his many man-sized mice minions capering around. Poor Clara, the dancer from New York, was frightened, and trying to get away, but the mice stopped her at every turn.
“Forward!” said the Nutcracker, in a strong voice. And they rode onto the stage.
Roitelet heard a gasp from the audience as a full sized stallion rode onto the set. And they weren’t the only ones: the toys soldiers, the dolls, the mice, the Mouse King, and even Clara stared in shock at the beautiful horse, their mouths all hanging open.
“What? How is this possible?” cried the Mouse King. “I got rid of you!”
“I’ve come back,” replied the Nutcracker, and he raised his sword, “and this time the story will end differently.”
“No!” shouted the Mouse King, drawing his sword from its sheath. “I will rule the Kingdom of Sweets! You will die, Nutcracker!”
The Nutcracker shook his massive head, gray hair flowing. “There will be no bump on the head with a wooden shoe tonight, Mouse King. This time I will finish you! Joyeux Noël!”
Then Roitelet reared, pawing the air with his sharp hooves. And the toy soldiers and the mice raced together and collided in combat. And the Nutcracker rode forward and struck the Mouse King with a thunderous blow. And the Mouse King fell, and was taken away.
The audience rose to their feet in rapturous applause, surprised and delighted by Christopher Rêves’ imaginative reinterpretation of their favorite story, and the prowess of the dancers on steeds, and with sabers. The reviews were stunning, and every following performance after Christmas was sold out with standing room made at the back for discounted rates. The stage manager thought the rehearsal director had brought in the horse. The rehearsal director thought the artistic director had. And the artistic director, Christopher Rêves himself, thought the stage manager had pulled a prank. But the audience loved it so much that he kept the horse in. And from that day on Christopher Rêves Ballet Company told the Nutcracker in a different way.
The Nutcracker got to dance with Clara in the Land of the Sweets. The Mouse King was replaced by a quieter, more obedient mouse. And Roitelet was allowed to stay with the ballet, because he learned that he loved dance, he loved the magic of the theatre, and could ride proudly with a soldier upon his back once again. And for them all, it was a Merry Christmas!