Her father died when she was in the cradle, and she lost her mother before reaching the age of ten. As an orphan, Martha was left in the care of a poor peasant hose servant she became. They lived in an obscure hamlet on a slope of the beautiful mountains of North Lebanon.
At his death, her father had left his family only his good name and a hut standing amidst willow and walnut trees. It was the death of her mother which truly orphaned her. It left emptiness in her heart which could not be filled. She became a stranger in her birthplace. Every day she walked barefoot leading a cow to pasture. While the cow grazed she sat under a tree, singing with the birds, weeping with the stream, envying the cow her serenity, and gazing at the blowers over which the butterflies hovered.
At night she returned home to a simple dinner of bread, olives, and dried fruit. She slept in a bed of straw; with her arms for a pillow; and it war her prayer that her whole life might be uninterrupted slumber. At dawn her master would wake her so that she would get the housework done before she led the cow to pasture. She trembled and did as she was ordered
Thus the gloomy and puzzling years passed, and Martha grew like a sapling. In her heart there developed a quiet affection of which she herself was unaware…like fragrance born in the heart of a flower.
She followed her fancy as sheep follow a stream to quench their thirst. Her mind was like virgin land where knowledge had sown no seed and upon which no feet had trod.
We who live amid the excitements of the city know nothing of the life of the mountain villagers. We are swept into the current of urban existence, until we forget the peaceful rhythms of simple country life, which smiles in the spring, toils in summer, reaps in autumn, rests in winter, imitating nature in all her cycles, we are wealthier than the villagers in silver or gold, but they are richer in spirit, what we sow we reap not; they reap what they sow. We are slaves of gain, and they the children of contentment. Our draught from the cup of life is mixed with bitterness and despair, fear and weariness, but they drink the pure nectar of life’s fulfilment.
At sixteen, Martha’s soul was like a clear mirror that reflects a beautiful landscape; her heart like a primeval valley that echoes all voices.
One day in autumn he sat by the spring, gazing at the falling yellow leaves, striped from the trees by the breeze that moved between the branches as death moves into a man’s soul. She looked at the withering flowers whose hearts were dry and whose seeds sought shelter in earth’s bosom like refugees seeking a new life.
While this engrossed, she heard hoof beats upon the ground, turning, she observed a horseman approaching. As he reached the spring he dismounted a greeted her with kind words, such as she had no heard from a man before. Then he went on to say, “Young lady, I have lost my way. Will you please direct me to the road to the coast?”
Looking like a tender branch, there by the spring, she replied, “I regret, sir, that I am unable to direct you, never having been away from home; but if you will ask my master I am sure he can help you.” Her flushed face, as she spoke, made her look more gentle and beautiful. As she started away he stopped her. His expression became soft as he said, “Please do not go.”
And a strange power in the man’s voice held her immobile. When she stole a glance at his face she found him gazing at her steadily. She could not understand his silent adoration.
He eyed her lovely bare feet, her graceful arms and smooth neck and shining hair. Lovingly and wonderingly he regarded her sun-warmed cheeks and her chiselled features. She could not utter a single word or move a muscle.
The cow returned alone to the barn that evening. Martha’s master searched all through the valley but could not find her. His wife wept all that night. She said the next morning, “I saw Martha in my dream last night, and she was between the paws of a wild beast who lured her; the beast was about to kill Martha, but she smiled.”
In the autumn of 1900, after a vacation in North Lebanon, I returned to Beyrouth, before re-entering school I spent a week roaming the city with my classmates. We were like births whose cage-door is unlocked, and who come and go as they please.
Youth is a beautiful dream, on whose brightness books shed a blinding dust. Will ever the day come when the wise link the joy of knowledge to youth’s dream? Will ever the day come when Nature becomes the teacher of man, humanity his book and life his school? Youth’s joyous purpose cannot be fulfilled until that day comes. Too slow is our march toward spiritual elevation, because we make so little use of youth’s ardour.
One evening, as I was contemplating the jostling street crowds of Beyrouth, and feeling deafened by the shouts of the street vendors, I noticed a ragged boy about five carrying some flowers on a tray, in a dispirited voice he asked me, “Will you buy some flowers, sir?”
His mouth was half-open, resembling and echoing a deep wound in the soul. His arms were thin and bare, and his frail body was bent over his flower tray like a branch of withering roses.
In my reply I tried to keep from my voice any intrusive edge of charity. I bought some of his flowers but my chief purpose was to converse with him. I felt that his heart was a stage upon which a continuous drama of misery was being enacted.
At my careful, tactful words he began to feel secure and a smile brightened his face. He was surprised to hear words of kindness, for like all the poor he was accustomed to harshness. I asked his name, which was Fu’ad, and then, “Whose son are you?” He replied, “I am the son of Martha.” “And who is your father?” I inquired. He shook his head, puzzled, as if unaware of the meaning of the word. I continued, “Where is your mother now, Fu’ad?” He replied, weeping, “She is at home, sick.”
Suddenly remembrance formed in my mind. Martha, whose unfinished story I had heard from an old villager, was ill nearby. That young woman who yesterday safely roamed the valley and enjoyed the beauty of nature was now suffering the anguish of destitution; that orphan who spent her early life in the haven of Nature was undergoing the tortures that city sophistication inflict upon the innocent.
As the boy started to leave, I took hold of his hand saying, “take me to your mother, I would like to see her.” He led the way silently, looking back now and then to see if I followed.
Through narrow, dirty streets with an odour of death in the air, and between houses of ill-fame, raucous with the sounds of sin, I walked behind Fu’ad, admiring the courage in his stride. It took courage to walk in these slums, where violence, crime and plague mocked the glory of this city, called “The Bride of Syria” and “The Pearl of the Sultan’s Crown.”
As we entered a particularly squalid quarter, the boy pointed to a hovel shoes walls appeared to be collapsing. My heartbeats quickened and I followed Fu’ad into a sunless, airless room, unfurnished except for an oil lamp and a hard bed upon which Martha was lying, her face to the wall as if to hide from the oppression of the city. Fu’ad touched her shoulder an said, “Mama.” As she turned painfully, he pointed at me. She moved her weak body under the ragged quilt, and with a despairing voice said, “What brings you here, stranger? What do you want? Did you come here to buy the last remnant of my soul and pollute it with your desire? Go away from here; the streets are full of women who sell themselves. What is left of my broken soul death shall soon buy. Go away from me and may boy.”
Those few word completed her tragic story. I said, “Fear me not, Martha; I come her not as a devourer, but as a fellow sufferer. I am a Lebanese who lived near your valley by the cedars of Lebanon, do not be frightened.”
Realizing then that my words came from a feeling soul, she shook like a thin branch before a strong wind, and placed her hands upon her face, trying to hide away the terrible and beautiful memory whose sweetness was ravaged by bitterness.
Then in a strangely strong yet hopeless voice she said, “You have come here as a benefactor, and my God reward you; but I beg you to leave, for your presence here will bring disgrace upon you, avoid being recognized. Your merciful heart does not restore my virtue; it neither effaces my shame nor protects me from the hands of death. My own sin brought this misery upon me; do not let your mercy bring you into shame. I am like a leper who must be avoided. Go, lest you be polluted! Do not mention my name in North Lebanon. The lamb with the mange is destroyed by the shepherd for fear he will infect the other lambs. If you speak of me, say I am dead.”
Then she embraced her little boy and said: “People will taunt my son, saying he is the fruit of sin; the son of Martha the adulteress; Martha the prostitute. For they are blind and do not see that his mother gave him life through misery. I shall die and leave him as an orphan among other children, and his remembrance of me will bring him shame. But when he becomes a man, he will help heaven to end that which brought sin upon me; and when he dies in the trap of time, he will find me waiting for him in Eternity, where light and peace abide.”
With a desolate heart I said, “Martha, you are not a leper, you live in a grave yet you are clean. The filth of the body cannot reach a pure soul.”
Hearing my heartfelt words, Martha’s face brightened, but it was plain that her death was near. Yesterday she had roamed the valleys of Lebanon; Today, weak and sorrowful, she awaited release from the shackles of life. Gathering her last fragments of strength she whispered, “I am everything you say, although my own weakness brought my agony… the horseman came…he spoke politely and cleverly…he kissed me… I knew nothing and relied on his words. He took me away and his fine words and smiles masked his ugly desires, after accomplishing my disgrace, he abandoned me. He split my life in two parts my helpless self, and my baby. We were cold…we suffered….for the sake of my child I took gold from men who bought my body. Many times I was close to taking my life. Now, at last, the hour has come and beloved death has arrived to enfold me under his sheltering wings.”
Suddenly in a strong but calm voice she said, “Oh Justice, hidden behind those terrible images, hear the shrieking of my departing soul and the call of my broken heart! Have mercy on me by saving my child and taking me away!”
Her breathing became weak. She looked sorrowfully and sweetly at her son and then whispered, “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven….Forgive us our sins as we…”
Her voice gave out but her lips still moved. Then she breathed her last on earth. Her eyes remained open as if seeing the invisible.
As dawn came, the body of Martha was carried in a rough casket to a graveyard by two poor men; far out from the City of Beyrouth they carried her. The priests refused to pray for her, and prohibited her interment in hallowed ground. And no one accompanied Martha to her resting place except her little son Fu’ad a youth to whom life had taught mercy and kindness.
------------------------------------------------------From Gibran’s Thoughts and Meditations