Khalid sits in the sand memorizing his verses, and his mind wanders to her.
It seems all too mortifying to explain, not without wanting to run before ants get to his feet or fear of going red in the face — but Khalid is just a boy, and at his ripe age with the whole world open before him like an oyster, he now spends most of his day thinking of a girl.
In his defense, she isn’t just any girl, either. She is Sitti, daughter of Dhon Manik and Khadeeja. They are both cousins to the crown by a not-large distance; over comfortable years together, they have built their own textile trade in the capital of Malé.
Khalid is in their family compound. His teacher hosts classes in their reception hall, because Dhon Manik’s house is one of the largest in their ward. Now, the house is full of little children who have come to learn, and women who carry heavy bundles from one hut to the other in a loud rush. Khalid wanders around the reception hall towards the back of the house. The smell of freshly cooked flatbread floats to him on the breeze, and he can see smoke wafting lazily from windows cut on either side of the badhige.
In the heart of the city, in a large goathi shrouded in generous green, inside a kitchen hut built behind the main house at the center of the compound, young Sitti sits with her mother, Khadeeja. The older woman is bent over the stove, warming flatbread on an iron slab while Sitti sits next to her washing sprigs of fresh moringa leaves in a bowl.
There is a celebration at their home this day. One of Sitti’s father’s brothers is visiting with his newborn son. His wife passed last year after childbirth, and her parents were determined to welcome him warmly. Her father had begun raving of all the delicious treats her mother would make on this day months ago, but after long hours in the hot and humid kitchen, Sitti finds herself growing restless for a swim.
Watching for when her mother turns, Sitti quickly slips a few treats, still fresh from the fry, inside her kerchief. When she has one of each, Sitti throws the kerchief outside, where it lands at the feet of a shadow in her mother’s garden.
After the last prayer call for the day, everyone from Khalid’s neighbourhood gathers at Dhon Manik’s house where a celebration is underfoot.
A striped kerchief is tucked into Khalid’s inside pocket. He doesn’t know what possessed him to take it that morning. Khalid stood as still as a stone when Sitti dashed past him to run to Hawwa Fulhu’s house down the street with an empty clay pot tied to her waist. She was to give Hawwa Fulhu some fresh flatbread and ask for some bilimbi from their tree for her mother to cook. Khalid took Sitti’s striped kerchief, heavy with warm food, and covered it with his own before dashing out behind her.
Khalid climbed a tree, and went home only after he saw Sitti returning homeways, nibbling on the sour fruit.
Now, as a crude drum begins to sound and people rise with heavy laughter for the real fun, Khalid remains unmoored, his thoughts with Sitti once more. He walks to the around the house, hoping for a moment of quiet. Back in the garden from this morning, Khalid finds a lone figure sitting inside the badhige.
Here is their moment of connection, a lifetime in the making. Without words, Khalid offers weeping Sitti food made by her mother, wrapped in her striped kerchief and his plain one. They eat together, talking and hiding in the little hut, laughing and playing with little food raised as wagers. When Khalid leaves, dawn is lightening the sky, and there are knots in his stomach where he’s sure butterflies now roam singing poetry in Sitti’s name.
In the next seven years, everyone living in Malé learned of the love between Khalid and Sitti.
They are always too close, always together when off to mischief with the other boys and girls whose parents are too busy to discipline them. The two children and their newfound bond infuriated Sitti’s parents. The girl would cry and beg for reason every time Dhon Manik forbade her from being with Khalid, and Khadeeja watched her own daughter differently now, with hawk’s eyes and a worried lines apparent on her brow.
Sitti was a girl from a wealthy family connected well with the royal court, and Khalid was the poor fisherman’s boy from the edge of their little community. As well-matched as fair Sitti looked next to the taller, stronger Khalid, this could simply not be — but the two young lovers were unashamed. How could they be? Theirs was a true friendship, connected by a sincere thread that could not be broken or denied. Sometimes, when Sitti walked with Khalid at sunset, she could swear she had known him from before this frame of their shared adventure. As if he was familiar to her before their fateful meeting seven years ago, as if all the new ways they grew and dreamt together was a script she’d already known word for word.
One day, while her parents slept, Khalid climbed the wall of Sitti’s home with her help. They had spoken of this decision much over the years, and the couple was sure it was time for them to seek their future. Khalid had traded dates, coir, flour, rice and sugar to get them secretly aboard a ship sailing to South Maalhosmadulu; a large portion of what he had been saving in the hopes of one day giving Sitti’s dowry to her parents was now his security for their future.
Khalid and Sitti packed all their precious things and left Malé in secret. They made it to an island where Khalid bartered once more for timber, and the two of them built a house by the water, surrounded by old trees and all kinds of winged creatures. They lived together in their hidden home, but Sitti was never free of people chasing her in her dreams. Often, Khalid was bribing the other islanders with his labor to keep them hidden from visitors.
Theirs was a difficult life. Sitti usually sat outside their home in the woods while Khalid worked in the back until sundown. Many days passed until one evening, when Khalid returned with his furoa on his back, he could not find Sitti where she usually sat by the roots of the trees.
He saw her shoes there, and her clothes, half-wet and bundled by the water. He followed, dropping the heavy axe-handle and untying his belt. In that moment, like a lifetime ago in the home of Sitti’s father, Khalid felt a deep and familiar mantle of knowing what to do settle over him.
Sitti had jumped into the water, and Khalid could only follow. The thread would never let them be separate, and the legend goes that they became mystical creatures of the water, never to be separated from each other ever again.