As soon as she got up, Katya ran to the window to survey the sky. “Papa! Papa!” she called. “The day is clear and lovely.”
As Katya dressed, she hummed in anticipation. There would be no lessons this morning, and, best of all, she’d have her papa to herself for the whole day.
Katya’s father, an ornithologist, was one of the best-known scientists in the Soviet Union, and the two of them were taking a boat on the Volga River to count waterfowl. It was a great treat for Katya. She had looked forward to it for weeks.
Since just before her fifth birthday, Katya had lived with her parents in the wild-life preserve. She knew that she was fortunate to live in such a beautiful region. Lately, however, for some reason she didn’t really understand, she felt as if something were missing.
As her father led the way to the boat dock, Katya told him about her latest letter from her pen pal, Larissa. She remembered the letter exactly: “Dear Katya, I am taking time from my studies to write you a description of First Day. The newspapers, radio, and television made a great fuss about the start of the new school year. And as you can imagine, Masha and I helped each other get our clothing ready for the big day. On First Day morning, all school children, along with parents and younger brothers and sisters, walked to school. The school doors weren’t opened until the important people of the town had given their speeches about the wonders and joys of education. Everyone cheered, and finally we gave our teachers flowers to celebrate the new year. I wondered how you passed First Day in the preserve. Please write all the details. Both Masha and I will read your letter eagerly!”
Papa listened to Katya’s account of the letter. Then he asked, “Would you like to leave the preserve and live in town where you could go to school with other children?”
“No,” answered Katya. “I’m just very interested in Larissa’s and Masha’s adventures.”
But Katya was troubled. When she answered Larissa’s letter, what could she say that would interest a girl who led such an exciting life? How could she expect anyone who’d never even seen this place to understand how much she loved her quiet, uneventful life here?
The truth was that Katya never wanted to leave this place. She intended to do just what her father did here—the very same work. But still, she was troubled. She felt like the country mouse in the story that she’d read to her brothers, and the life of a country mouse was not very exciting.
Katya loaded the lunch basket, a blanket, her binoculars, and Papa’s bag into the shallow metal motorboat. Because the boat was neither deep nor heavy, it could skim quickly across the water. It was also easy to row. The noise of a motor could frighten the birds away, so Papa would use the oars when they approached the flocks.
With the motor roaring, Katya and her father sped along the surface of the cold lake. After a while, they entered a region where beautiful lotuses bloomed.
They’re as big as dinner plates! Katya thought. I wonder if Larissa has ever seen such flowers.
Papa shut off the motor. “Time to start rowing, I’m afraid.”
Katya took her binoculars from the case and started to watch the sky for ospreys.
Soon Papa slowed his rowing. They were at the entrance to the part of the lake where he thought he might sight swans swimming, and he didn’t want to startle them.
Just then Katya caught sight of an osprey! As she watched through her binoculars, the bird sighted a fish from high in the air, dove immediately after it, and surfaced with the fish in its beak. I wonder if Larissa has ever seen anything like that, Katya thought. It would be wonderful if everyone on earth could visit the preserve and observe the wonders here. And it would be even better if Papa could teach them all about everything here.
Katya stood up in the boat and attempted to focus her binoculars on a second osprey. Without warning, the boat rocked under her feet. A second later, Katya was underwater. The water was cold and deep. When she felt herself rising at last, she reached for the surface and the side of the boat. Then she felt a firm hand on her arm, and her father hauled her into the boat. He wrapped her in the blanket and held her tight. “I thought you were interested in the study of birds, but instead, I find that what you really want to learn about is fish!” he teased.
Later, while busily counting birds with her father, Katya wondered if Larissa’s going to school with her family on First Day could be any happier than what she and Papa were doing. And as the boat took them home at sunset, Katya was no longer troubled about being a country mouse. She and Larissa inhabited different worlds, but through their letters, they could share each other’s lives. The experiences that she had might not be as exciting as those of her city friend, but they were just as interesting.