The girl nervously idling in the storatorium’s gated entrance couldn’t have been more than eight years old, yet even from across the vestibule it was clear her worn eyes and hardened skin told a long, heartbreaking story of unnecessary suffering.
Her fiery red hair was wrapped in the tattered remains of a salvaged dumpster bag to protect against the blistering sun, wrapped into a neck scarf and draped over an ill-fitted dress made of the same material. The bright sunburns on the girl’s face highlighted an ocean of deep wrinkles and the grimy stains covering her hands stretched from blackened fingertips to mud-smudged forearms — also sporting deep-red sunburns.
The grandfatherly curator quickly stood up, surprised to see such a sight entering the storatorium, but further surprised to have a visitor at all: the storatorium had been extremely quiet since his daughter, who had been a magnet for drawing bright new faces in over the years, passed away. He took a step towards the girl — who froze in place when she realized someone had noticed her — and gestured toward his desk with a genuine smile, calling out, “Come on in, young lady!”
Her lips cracked as she smiled from the entrance — dark teeth and all — and a droplet of blood had formed on her bottom lip by the time she traversed the large, open room. She tentatively approached the curator’s desk.
“Here,” Bao said, grabbing a tissue from his desk and handing it to the girl, “you can wipe your lip.” He paused for her to silently do so, and then asked, “What brings you in?”
A look of astonishment spread over the girl’s face that culminated in a dumbfounded silence which lasted until the curator spoke up again.
“Curiosity,” he nodded, knowingly, “I can see it in your eyes. Do you know what we do here?”
Breaking from her frightened gaze, the girl took her time looking around the room — or, at least, looking everywhere but at the curator — and eventually shook her head.
“We’re a storytelling community, focused primarily on Anansian writing and collaboration. Do you know Anansi?”
Again, the girl shook her head, this time with a frown.
“No, that’s okay,” he reassured, smiling. “I’ll show you how it works if you tell me your name.”
The girl’s brow furrowed and a clump of scarlet hair fell out of her headscarf, brushing a bit of dirt off the girl’s forehead. She looked back at the entrance she’d come in at and the harsh sunlight streaming in through the glass doors, and a warm smile slowly came over her cracked lips. Eventually, she turned back to the old curator and said, “I’m Kiki.”
For the briefest of moments, the strangers bonded over shared smiles, but Kiki’s soon faded. With eyes still lit with excitement, the old man greeted the little girl by name and introduced himself as Curator Bao.
“Anansi’s a language specifically for written storytelling, which lets storytellers express stories in ways they couldn’t otherwise tell with just plain writing,” Bao explained slowly, biding time while he simultaneously searched his desk for some scrap paper to write examples on. “Have you learned much writing in school yet?”
Kiki’s sunburned face flashed an even deeper red as she mumbled, “I don’t have school. My writing ain’t so good, but I can read some.”
“That’s absolutely fine,” the curator continued, “you don’t need to write anything. In fact, Anansi makes reading more fun also.” He grabbed a pen and put a sheet of paper between him and the girl, angling it so they could both see. “Well, Anansi has its own set of symbols it uses instead of the words we normally read and write, but you can still understand it just fine with words. Oh wait, in fact actually, I have Petrov’s Converging Love here translated somewhere! — oh yes, here it is, look here.”
The curator dropped a much larger sheet of paper onto the desk between he and the girl, and on it was a web of text written every which way, looping and branching in long strands of text crawling all over the paper and (very reasonably) looking overwhelmingly confusing to someone to had never been exposed to Anansi, let alone an eight-year-old girl, and especially an orphan with minimal schooling or exposure to reading and writing.
In fact, Kiki physically recoiled at first with confusion, but quickly leaned back in as the curator stretched an old, leathery finger towards one corner and began explaining.
“Look here, this symbol in the corner: this is where the story starts for the young Dahlia, not too much older than yourself. You always start reading at this symbol. You can see the writing follows a straight line here, introducing her — she’s a struggling young girl, working hard to afford food for her and her brother Corbet, while praying and remaining hopeful that Corbet recovers from an awful plague spreading through the land.
“You can see it’s pretty straightforward — like any normal reading — except that the lines curve a bit here and here, and especially here. There’s actually a lot of thought that goes into when to curve the lines in Anansian writing: if you look here, we see Dahlia getting fired from where she was working. You’ll see a sharp curve left in the text when that happens; in general, a curve left is going to give you a sadder outcome and a curve right is going to be a bit happier. It doesn’t usually change the meaning of the story, and doesn’t really spoil anything for you while you’re reading: you just have to remember that what’s sadder now may actually end up being happier in the long run — or the other way around.
“Oh, and words are upside down in places right now so you’ve got to kind of turn the paper to follow along like this, but usually Anansi is written in its own language of symbols that can be rotated any which way while still being recognizable, so you could follow this path here, this curve, and still read this without having to physically turn your paper around with the curve, like this. For example, if I drew a house here instead of having the word, you’d know it was a house even if it were upside down. Does that make sense?”
Kiki blinked a well of accumulating confusion from her eyes, but otherwise slowly nodded. Thankful that the man was taking such an interest in explaining something — anything — to her, she added, “Tell me more please.”
Curator Bao smiled, enjoying the company.
“Okay, so, here’s where it gets really cool, right? You have these curves that track the mood of the story, but look here, where Dahlia meets a young boy at the park— he’s nice, he’s friendly, and he immediately takes an interest to the beautiful young girl. He asks for her name, and you can see here the words then branch out in two directions: one heading right, where she introduces herself to him and they become friends; and one heading left, where she refuses his advance and leaves instead. As the reader, you can actually choose right here with path to take and just keep reading that way as if it didn’t branch off at all.”
“Why would you ever choose the sad path? Doesn’t she want friends?”
“Don’t forget Kiki, what’s sad now may not be sad later. The path where she leaves actually leads you over to here — oh yes, right here — where she finds a lost necklace in the street that she sells to buy some medicine to make things better for her brother. Anansian writing tries to mimic the uncertainty of life: sometimes the sad times are only there to make you appreciate the happier times afterwards.”
“I hope that’s true,” Kiki mumbled, looking back at the story and pointing. “What about here, where the words go back to what you read already?”
“Oh, that cyzn. That’s actually a really famous but especially sad loop: sometimes, unfortunately, people do decide to choose the sad path in life, and sometimes that makes it harder and harder to get back to a happy path later. In that loop, you can see Dahlia doing things that are really bad for her health just to make enough to pay for Corbet’s medicine, and if you follow the path around this left curve here, you can see she has to promise to do the same work again tomorrow just to have enough for her brother’s medicine today. It’s a depressing cycle that gets sadder and sadder each time you read it, with only two even sadder ways out, here: either the medicine isn’t enough in this path and her brother — well— passes away, and she’s finally able to pay her way back out of the hole; or here, where she works herself to the bone and can no longer provide for herself, let alone Corbet. That loop is the most devastating ending to Converging Love, in my opinion.”
A tear welled up in Kiki’s eye and she sniffled loudly in the storatorium’s silence as more tears followed.
“Here, here,” the curator cooed, handing the orphan girl more tissues from his desk. “I’m sorry, perhaps this story is a bit mature for your age. It’s important to remember that it’s just a story though, and that happy and sad are just two sides to the same coin: you can’t have one without the other. I hope our talk here was more happy than sad for you.”
Kiki sniffled again, composed herself, and finally managed between heavy breathing, “No, no, thank you. I’m mature, it’s okay. Tell me more, please. Is there a happy ending?”
The curator studied the girl, whose wrinkles and sunburns and scratches and clothing suggested that she was indeed more mature than her age would imply, and also had no one back home that would come to complain to him about inappropriate stories (as much as he’d like even more company), so he continued:
“Okay, okay. Yes, there are a few happy endings, although even in the happiest of endings the road there was not always easy or always right-turning. Back here in the park, if we follow the path where Dahlia introduces herself to the young boy, we learn his name is Preston and he’s a genuinely good person at heart. He works hard apprenticing under his step-father and bonds with Dahlia over his loneliness, and eventually — following this path here — adds a cut of what he makes to help with Corbet’s medicine. Here, you can see, the words actually take a really sharp turn where Corbet actually starts recovering from the plague.”
“So he gets better?”
“He gets better, in this path here. But there’s some more branches to follow over here, where you see another cool trick in Anansian writing: Corbet’s plot and Preston’s plot overlapping. You see, we started over in Dahlia’s corner and followed her through the story, but in the other corners here and here, we see that starting symbol I showed you but for Corbet and Preston. You can follow Corbet’s life from here and see how it entwines so much with Dahlia’s lines, yet Preston’s doesn’t cross over into the tastaria as much until he meets our girl in the park. It seems complex, but it’s basically just multiple stories overlapping when the person they’re about interacts with someone in their own story — again, mimicking life.
“This right here,” Bao pointed excitedly, “is one of the happier endings, I think — even though it’s not a fairy-tale ‘And they lived happily ever after’ ending — where Corbet makes a full recovery. You can see almost a spiraling of sharp right turns in the text as Corbet feels better and better and Dahlia starts working less to spend more time with him. It’s probably best-case for Corbet, although it’s admittedly pretty unfortunate for Preston: as Dahlia splits time between work and her brother, she’s so consumed with the love of having him back that she drifts away from the boy who helped her get there. You can actually see both her line and Corbet’s converge here when they make a promise to take care of each other: they’re so entwined they actually just become one line from then on.”
“That’s kind of mean to Preston,” Kiki grumbled, unswayed by the alleged happiness of the ending.
“That’s the story,” curator Bao said, smiling. “But if you want a happy ending for Preston you can follow this line — oh, where is it again? — oh yes, here, where, well, after Corbet passes, Dahlia is so burned out from working that Preston takes over supporting the two of them and they actually get married here — you can see the two lines converging just like hers and her brothers did in the other ending — and they scrape together enough for a shack and start building a life together. Some people find it a sad ending because they don’t have much and still struggle to survive, but they have more than they had before — and they have each other.”
“That’s not really a happy ending, either.”
“Oh, little girl,” Bao sighed, “I know. This story may be famous, but that doesn’t stop it from being sad. Sometimes you just have to identify what makes you happy and do your best to guide the story towards the happiest ending available. It may not be perfect, but it’s probably going to be better than where you started.”
Kiki looked around somberly, as one does at the end of a particularly enthralling story, but also as someone does at the end of a soul crushing tale about loneliness, hardship, and death. She glanced anxiously back towards the front door across the storatorium’s vestibule and the relentless sun still pouring in from outside, cooking everything it touches. When she looked back at the curator, he had a card in his hand outstretched towards her.
“Here, take this. We’re a community here and I’d love to have you back, Kiki. We collaborate together on these kinds of story webs and I’d bet you have some great stories inside you to tell. We come up with stories and branch off each other’s stories wherever we’d like by asking, ‘What if?’. We used to have a beginner class for getting started that my daughter taught, but I’d be happy to teach you the ropes instead. You could even add some happy endings of your own to some stories if you’d like.”
Kiki clutched the membership card in her hand and looked down at it, smiling with cracked lips, swollen gums, and rotten teeth.
“I’d like that. I’d like a happy ending for once. Thank you, Mr. Bao.”