The Signora

by Rawi Hage

Stories by Rawi Hage
The Jinni's Woman
The Little Boy and His Friend the Young Fighter
The Signora
© Rawi Hage -2023

While he was sitting in a Barcelona coffee shop, under the Spanish sun, in the year 1974, George Haddad, a Lebanese businessman, was struck by the beauty of a lady at the table across from him. He called the waiter and asked him to send her a drink. The waiter disappeared and came back with a glass on his round tray, placed it before the tall black-eyed lady with firm breasts and straight black gypsy hair, and pointed at George.

The lady neglected the whole incident and kept on looking away.

The man stood up, walked over to her and asked, in French, if he could join her. He spoke fluent French, having been educated in a French school, by the most severe Jesuit priests in Lebanon. She looked up at him and nodded. He sat next to her, introduced himself as George; she introduced herself in French, as Maria Valliancourt.

George offered her a cigarette. She accepted it, and held it between two long fingers and waited for a light. George lit the Spanish matches, leaned his body towards her and smelled her fragrance, fixed his eyes on her bosom and watched her lips sucking air through the rolled tobacco. Sparkles and red fire burned in his heart from that moment on.

They talked about Spain, travels and the French language. She was firm in her manner, proud and somehow severe in her tone. Her formal, masculine figure was one of the silent strong type.

They agreed to meet again. When they stood up to leave, Maria looked twice his size. She walked away; he took a taxi to his hotel.

That evening, he met with a few business people over dinner. Jose, the manager of a factory, took him to a clandestine joint with a dance show, a bar and loud music. He asked two prostitutes to join them at the table, and opened champagne. George drank heavily; he danced all night and smiled at the lady beside him. At the end of the night he took her back to his hotel.

In the morning he woke up with his arms around a woman he did not recognize.

She dressed and left; he was left with a headache and a wrinkled tie around his neck.

Franco was still in power back then and fascism showed its grandiose aesthetics in every church step, in Barcelona's clean streets and large monuments. Statues of saints and statues of Franco filled every fountain and park. Residue of martyrs' blood and pigeon feathers mingled and stuck to cobblestone like ancient fossils. Traces of triumphant parades, Moors, German tanks and Russian bullets have faded with time; the fascists have won.

Friday came, and George met Maria in the same coffee shop. She was dressed in black. She held a book in her hand and sat at the same table. He walked straight to her table and smiled.

She nodded to him and softly said,

"Once I sat down, I was hoping you would not show up. Maybe it is a bad idea for us to meet again."
"But I am glad you stayed," he said.
"It is a beautiful day and I was looking forward all week to seeing you. I was hoping to see a bullfight today."
"Absolutely not, I will never assist to such a barbaric thing. Maybe I should go now."
She stood up, aggravated and offended, and quickly walked away. George followed her like a small nymph chasing a god.
"You are following me like a dog, Monsieur George."
"More like a lost tourist, I would say."
"Maybe I should pull out a sword and plunge it into your back, the way a matador would do to a bull, and then you would stop following me."
"Oh madam, anything from your lovely hands would be accepted."

She did not answer and walked faster, and he ran after her. At the street corner she waited for the green light. He waited beside her, then slowly approached her tall erect body and whispered,

"Can I take you to lunch?"
"I am not hungry."
"How about tonight? Can I take you to the opera?"
"Are you willing to beg for it, Monsieur George?"
"Yes, you go down on your knees and beg."
"For that I should be offered more than an opera."
"Maybe you would. You go down on your knees and beg then."

George lifted his pants and dropped one knee on the Spanish soil; his other knee followed. He looked up, the sun was blazing in his eyes, and she stood above him and became a black silhouette blocking the sun, a long abyss or an executioner waiting to cut his head off in one swift strike.

"Maybe now that you are on your knees, I can plant the second sword in your back, Monsieur George. I will meet you at the opera tomorrow. After that, you can come to my place for dinner."

And she crossed the street and vanished.

George stood up, brushed off his pants and retreated to the café. He sat down, called the waiter and ordered a drink. He watched the Spaniards' passage, the high churches, and the modest cars that smoked and puffed their little grey fumes, all under the brightest rays. He looked at his watch, took a few more sips from his glass, left a few coins on the table, and walked back to his room.

There he took off his clothes and lay in bed. He looked at the high ceiling, the yellow walls, old paintings of Spanish villagers lifting hay in green meadows. Through the window he could see drifting light white clouds floating under a vast dark blue sheet of sky. He closed his eyes and slept through the afternoon.The next day he went early and bought two tickets to the opera, and couldn't wait to meet his date. Maria wore wide scarves that hid her upper body. Her hair was lifted up, all gathered into a round curl at the top, her shoes were in soft leather, her lips slightly painted in red, her fingers surrounded by rings, her wrists covered with thick bracelets. George had a suit on.

They walked in, and sat together in silence. The curtains were raised; actors sang, wept and begged; the curtains came down and they both walked towards her house.

She offered him food, wine and fruits. She took off her clothes and invited him to bed.

She let her hair loose, her nails clung to his back, her red sheets flew in the air and covered his eyes, the lovemaking was one of pain and pleasure, he felt like a haunted prey, and he was pleased.
She took a shower, called a taxi and asked him to leave.

The next morning he knocked at her door. She opened the door and asked,

"What do you want, Monsieur George?"
"I am going back to Lebanon soon. Would you like to come with me?"
"Come inside."

He stepped in. Her house looked brighter; objects shone. There were small vases holding flowers, books in French and Spanish, a portrait of a man in a militia suit, a red flag, and a vast painting of a naked woman holding an old wooden rifle in the air.

"You are looking at my father's portrait," she said.
"Was he a soldier?"
"A kind of soldier. He was French, he came here on a mission during the civil war, he fought with the republicans against Franco, he was killed..."

And in the same breath she asked,

"When do we leave for Lebanon?"

They flew over the Mediterranean and towards the east. When they landed, he drove her to his home. He took her to the mountains, to restaurants, to sand beaches.

She slept in his bed. He asked her to marry him. She refused.

"I do not enter churches. I do not kneel."
"Stay here as long as you like."
"I will leave when I want to. You will never possess me."

He bought her gold, food and grapes. He changed his house, hid his mother's icons in closets. He bowed to her. Often went on his knees. He begged for sex, for love and for her not to leave.

When he took a business trip to Saudi Arabia, he asked his niece, Souad, to come and check on her.
His niece came to the door and Maria smiled at her.

They went for a long walk together; they talked about Spain, George, men. Souad cooked dinner that night, and Maria asked her to stay. She kissed her goodnight, then moved her tongue down to her lips, slipped her hand down her thighs. Her knees, young and frozen did not resist. It was all a revelation to Souad; she was taken by surprise. A sense of newness and pleasure intrigued her and made her wet, trembling in fear and shame. They woke up naked next to each other.

In time, Maria became known as the signora by the locals. Everyone courted her. She was invited to the high-class bourgeois circles, parties and trips to private chalets in the high frozen mountains. Her impeccable French was her ticket, and her graceful proud manners were perceived as an indication of nobility.

Fools! Sheer fools! She secretly held them in contempt. They were superficial and ignorant. Down her throat through her thighs she despised them. She despised their pretentious manners, the flamboyant expensive clothes and the banal conversation.
George was weak and useless. A buffoon. The only reason she came with him was to get away from the factory work. To live a different experience, to leave her life. Souad, his niece, was bewildered, withdrawn. She come often, and was mesmerized, subdued by the signora. The signora loved her innocence, her large eyes. Souad reminded her of her first love with a girl who had kissed her once, on her mouth, between the arches and the break of dawn.

In 1975, a civil war broke out in Lebanon. The right-wing Christians fought the Palestinians and their left-wing allies.

George took the Christian side. He became an enthusiast supporter of the Christian cause. He held meetings and attended parades. When the war broke out and the bombs flew from one side to the other, he was glued to the news, phoned his supporters and became actively involved with the local militia. He gathered guns and bullets, banners and flags. Read the news and listened to the radio constantly.

The signora became secretly aggravated with his fascist, ossified views, his simplistic rhetoric and his idiotic enthusiasm for the wrong cause, the wrong side.

She thought of going back to Spain, but she was intrigued by the war, kissed by the young girl, and loved the mountains, so she stayed.

Once she received a phone call from the Spanish embassy, asking her to leave Lebanon. She refused. War was intriguing to her. Fear of death, her death, now that it had become a possibility, gave her something to live for, finally. Years of a bland existence, of routine work and a sick dying mother had made her eager to leave, to go anywhere. Death, the signora wanted a death worthy of her father's. A heroic death, yes a lovely explosive death. War finally came and offered her that prospect.

Combat and war, she was surrounded by its smell, a smell of powder, of screaming cadavers, of lightning, and the bang sound from a cannon that had just fired a rocket and that bing resonance from a bomb that landed on a nearby roof, and the small faraway rhythmic riffles, the empty streets, the hungry cats snatching a limb or a thigh, the elaborate political conversations of illiterate men, the woman in fear, the stocking up on bread and grain, the closed stores and the open eyes. All of it made her secretly cheer like a spectator in the bloodiest arena of all. Gore! Now it was the human turn to be butchered, stabbed underneath brilliant red cloth that is held, waved, and danced by strong, graceful arms.

George was getting more and more involved in the war. Once at night he came back in a green military uniform, accompanied by two other unshaven men. He acted like a commander, and did not introduce her to them. She never understood what they talked about. She felt enraged. She wanted to know. In bed she asked him about his military uniform, the guns, the men.

When he was reluctant to talk, she caressed his hair, told him that his new ragged look excited her. She asked him to take a shower; once he was clean, she laid her lips all over his penis and sucked him. When he came in her mouth, she felt disgust and nausea. She ran to the bathroom, turned on the faucet and spat, vomited and washed her lips.

That night he told her of arms shipments, his involvement in arranging the purchase of arms for the militia. He boasted about his experience in shipping matters and contracts, deals and commissions. She listened to him with fake admiration. They made love again. George acted cocky in bed. The bombs fell, the electricity was cut off, and people rushed to the bakery for bread and food. The radio played loud military music and rushing news in every house.

Soon everyone went down to the shelters. In fear and darkness, with thoughts of death, surrounded by the smell of dew and the trails of rats, confined within old concrete walls, in between the child's cries, the lit candles, the gas stoves, and right behind the thick pillar, the signora slipped her hand under Souad's shirt and hugged her tight, both of them breathing in fear, in one rhythm, a female dance, in intimacy while bombs fell and mothers screamed, children played, men smoked, cigarettes glowed underneath the earth.

A few days passed, and there was a cease-fire. The signora took a taxi to the Spanish consulate. She asked the clerk to send a package to Spain with their diplomatic pouch. The clerk tried again to convince her to leave. The signora shrugged her shoulders. And left.

George was always absent now. When the bombs fell on the city, when everyone hid down in the shelter, the signora stayed in the flat. Souad stayed with her. "We will die together," Souad said once and kissed her hand.
Once on a rainy day George came storming into the house, frantically searching for a document. He opened drawers, threw clothes on the floor, rifled through his desk. He cursed and moved about. Then he stopped and approached the signora."There was a stack of papers here, documents, in an envelope. Have you seen it?"

"Who came to the house in my absence?"
"No one."
"No one?"
"Who else?"
"No one."
"The concierge saw you leaving, you took a taxi. Where did you go?"
"To the Spanish embassy."
"What for?"
"To send a letter to my aunt."
"What else did you send?"

George nodded his head and left. That evening he came back with two militiamen.

They talked in Arabic and drank whisky. They were agitated; George at times would wave his hand and shake his head.
After they left, George sat at the edge of the signora's bed. He woke her up, looked long in her eyes. His eyes were red and furious. She was naked; he slid his hand up her chest, close to her throat.

"What did you send in the letter? Whom did you send it to?"
"My aunt."
"The arms shipment was interrupted. We think someone leaked the information."

The signora looked at him, and turned her back.

"I need to sleep. Do not wake me up."

George did not sleep that night. He smoked and walked around the house. He came back to the room a few times and opened the bedroom door, his long shadow fell on the bed sheet and on his Spanish lover.

Early in the morning, Fouad showed up at the door. George entered the signora's bedroom and woke her up. He uncovered her, and looked at her long body resting on cotton sheets, her white legs and her defiant expression.

"We have to go. Get dressed."
"Where to?"
"Don't ask too many questions. Get dressed."

She stood up naked. Through the open door she could see Fouad's military boots, his gun hanging at his waist, and his curly hair.

She put on her dress and zipped it, crossed to the mirror, fixed her hair, walked nonchalantly to the bathroom, brushed her teeth, spat, gurgled, and walked straight to the kitchen.
George grabbed her arm and walked her to the car.

"Where are we going?"
"You are going, my love. You, not me."

He drove and Fouad sat in the back. The streets were empty, and the bombs were not yet falling. The fighters must have been asleep.

They drove to the mountains. The car stopped under steep cliffs of orange clay, a few trees and early-rising birds. George asked Fouad to leave the car.

"You leaked those documents to the enemy."
"Look at you playing the commander, George."
"Whom do you work for? Who is your contact here?"
"George, you are a fascist. I work for no one. If you want to know, George, I did it because I despise ignorant people like you. I despise your politics, your superficial parties and your racist comments. I hated you all along, George. Pitiful, you are pitiful. I sent the document to a friend and asked her to mail it to the Communist Party office in France. I have no contact here. You are the contact. You are the contact, my brave matador."

George opened the door and stepped down from the car.

"I will tell Souad you went back home."

Fouad took the front seat and drove down the dusty road towards the horizon. Through the back window of the car, George watched Maria in tears, looking back his way. He waited. Two shots were fired. A grave, like a dagger in a beast's back, was dug in the fertile red soil.

Rawi Hage is a writer and a visual artist, born in Beirut, Lebanon. After having experienced nine years of the Lebanese civil war, in 1984 he left Beirut to New York City where he held various jobs in restaurants, warehouses and stores. In 1992 he crossed the border to Montreal and he's been living in the city ever since.

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