So never stayed near the village, which worried his mother no end.
He would walk through the forest, hour upon hour, not hunting, not gathering, just walking.
“What do you do, all those hours?” she asked him, one day.
“I think,” he said.
So’s mother reported that to the elders: “He thinks.”
The elders discussed this amongst themselves, quietly, in order that So’s mother (who had, impertinently, remained in their view during the talk) might not hear. Then, the youngest of the elders turned to her with the results of the debate.
“What,” the youngest elder asked, “Does he think about?”
So’s mother was not allowed to follow him into the woods. Instead, another villager was dispatched to determine what So was thinking about, and the next morning, as the other villagers began preparing to fish or hunt or gather plaintains, So walked out into the woods, followed by the spy, whose name was Tinioc.
Tinioc reported back that evening. “I could not determine what he was thinking about,” he told the elders, who told this to So’s mother, who asked “Where did he go?”
“The river,” said Tinioc, and told how So had climbed out onto a long branch of a tree that hung far out over the water, and there had lain on his belly, occasionally trailing his hand in the water.
This mystified the elders, and the next day several of them, the stronger ones who could still walk far, went with Tinioc and followed So themselves. That day, So did not go to the river tree, but instead tracked through the jungle, pushing aside broad leaves, until he reached an ant hill. There, he spent several hours crouching on various sides of the hill, every now and then putting down leaves, or twigs, or flower petals he would gather from around the ant hill’s clearing.
The elders debated that, too, that night, with Tinioc reporting back to So’s mother that they had not yet come to a decision of what to do about this.
“They have not,” Tinioc told her, “Even decided if they need to decide anything about this.”
Day after day, more and more villagers followed So, always trying to remain hidden, until on the fifth day there were more than twenty villagers trailing through the jungle, a long line of silent hunters and tillers and women creeping after him. They watched So that day, and every day, as he climbed up trees and came down with bird’s nests, or as he walked behind waterfalls, or peered at spider’s webs.
On the seventh day, the elders met, as they had every night, and determined that following So was getting them nowhere. They instead decided to have various members of the village go and do the things they had observed So doing.
Tinioc, they ordered, would continue to follow So, and each day would report back what So had done that day. Meanwhile, other villagers would go climb the long tree branch, or wade through the shallow marshes with a stick, poking at some of the harder to see places, or scatter a nest of birds and watch them fly off in different patterns, or even make their way to the sandy shores of the sea where sometimes large boats could be seen sailing by, far off on the horizon. There, the elders told those villagers, you will watch the boats but not wave, just as So does.
These men and sometimes women reported back each day, too, on what they had done and whether they had determined what it was So had thought about while he did those. Each time, the conclusion was the same:
“I do not know what So was thinking,” the villager would report.
For over a month this continued, until finally the elders decided that it was time to ask So, himself, even though they had felt this was a dangerous thing to do. Who knows what such a strange boy would say, when asked such a question!
The elders feared So’s answer. There was a story in the village about the question that had begun the universe. It went like this:
Before the universe had begun, the creator, who at that time was called nothing as there was nothing to name, looked around and saw nothing but darkness all around him, or her – there was no way to say whether the creator was a man or woman at the time because there was nobody or nothing else to observe the creator – and the creator, seeing the absence of everything but him, or her, self, had asked:
“Where is everything?”
That simple question, the villagers knew, had brought about the entire universe, in response to the creator’s question, and thus the power of questions, and their answers, had been established at the same time as everything else that was.
From that story, the elders had always taught the villagers this message: Be careful what questions you ask, as one day there may be an answer that destroys everything. And so the villagers rarely asked any questions, at all.
Thus, it was with no small degree of fear that the elders, sitting in front of the central fire, faced So. Around the edges of the clearing, the villagers gathered to watch the questioning.
So came forward.
“What is it you want to know, elders?” he asked. His face glowed red in the night, his eyes calm.
The youngest elder leaned forward, and said:
“We want to know what it is you think about, all day, every day, as you do these things you do.”
So cocked his head at them.
“Then ask,” he said, “the question.” For So had noticed that the elder had not in fact phrased it as a question, at all.
The youngest elder took a deep breath, and said “What do you think about, all day, every day, So?”
“I ask questions,” So told them. At their frightened looks, he went on: “I ask why the river never runs out of water, and how the ants know which leaves to eat and which will poison their young, why the birds go to sea to find food when there is so much behind them in the forest, how the bugs learned to make themselves look like flowers. I ask where the large boats come from and where they go to, and who rides on them. I wonder how the caves behind the waterfall grew, and why the rocks in them shine so even though they have never seen the sun.”
The list of So’s questions went on and on, until the moon had set and the fire had nearly died out. When So was finally silent, the elders – stunned by the sheer number of questions, and possible answers – were speechless.
It was up to So’s mother to ask the question everyone wanted to know:
“Have you,” she asked, “Gotten any answers?”
Answers! The villagers could not help but look to the sky to see if perhaps the stars were winking out, even then.
“No,” said So, and every villager relaxed and let go of her, or his, fear, until So went on: