After their wedding, Susanna and Figaro went on holiday in Seville. Rosina sensed that her husband was grateful for their absence, since he never mentioned his own valet or his new wife except in the blandest terms. He called Rosina by his old pet names and doted on her, and to him it might have seemed like he and Rosina were the newlyweds, and that their encounter in the garden had been like a renewal, a second wedding, for the two of them.
What Rosina remembered from that night, during quiet moments when she was alone, was stepping out of the shadows and unveiling herself in the light of the torches. She remembered standing over her prostrate husband, those few seconds stretching to eternity as she’d held his absolution in her hands. The memory of it felt sometimes felt more real to her than his presence and his touch.
At night she sometimes lay awake in bed, her sleeping husband beside her the only sound in the stillness. In that half-asleep state, she found that thoughts of the garden still clung to her: hiding in the grove, pressing herself against the pavilion wall with her heartbeat pounding in her ears, the night air heavy with the scent of flowers and pine, herself in a maiden’s wedding dress, footsteps, laughter, Susanna’s singing voice soft and high in the darkness.
Susanna returned after two weeks, and appeared in Rosina’s bedroom in the morning when she was called for. Seeing her jolted Rosina awake. The day of Susanna’s wedding had been so strange that it now seemed like a dream, but Susanna standing at the foot of Rosina’s bed, bright and happy from her honeymoon, was proof that it had happened. Even though nothing could be more ordinary than her maid attending to her in the morning, Rosina couldn’t help but think of that small miracle of Susanna appearing behind her cupboard door.
Susanna stood there patiently, looking serene. “My lady,” she said, “did you sleep well? Are you alright?” Rosina gave an excuse about being tired, and Susanna hummed in sympathy and walked to the armoire. “At first I thought you’d forgotten who I was. I didn’t think I was gone for that long.”
Rosina smiled at that. Susanna had been her maid for as long as she had been the Countess Almaviva; she could no more forget Susanna than she could forget her own husband. Her own husband—
Rosina thought for a second, unwillingly, of Susanna kissing Figaro at the altar; and later, Susanna berating Figaro, in an angry whisper that had carried as far as Rosina’s hiding place, before softening and kissing him again. The stab of envy, as unexpected as it was sharp, made Rosina close her eyes. Here was Susanna in her new life; here was the Countess Almaviva, waking up in the morning in the house on the Almaviva estate as she had been doing for years. She watched distractedly as Susanna took her clothes out of the armoire, feeling as though she were watching the scene in her own bedroom from far away.
Rosina’s husband went to London and took only Figaro with him. In his absence there were no dinner parties or dances to be hosted at the estate, no gatherings where she had to make an appearance, only the occasional social visit from other ladies or her husband’s relatives. She spent most of her leisure time alone, and time seemed to stretch out in the summer sun. Books were left unfinished on the chaise, and phrases on the harpsichord trailed off into unresolved nothingness. She often took walks on the grounds by herself, usually passing through where the well-planned gardens shaded into the woods, shadowed and half-wild.
Rosina was restless. She missed her husband. When he was at home, it was easier to focus on the way he told jokes to her and proudly displayed her on his arm and brought her gifts from his trips abroad, and easier for her mind not to wander. When he was away, there was a feeling of something being wanting. She’d won her husband back, but there was an emptiness to the victory, and she felt that emptiness more keenly when he wasn’t with her. Now that she’d won, what was there to do next?
She found Susanna in the gardens one evening, bent over the rose beds and singing something to herself. “My lady!” she said, standing up when she heard Rosina’s footsteps. “I didn’t see you there.”
Rosina felt like an interloper. She didn’t want Susanna to see her wandering around the gardens alone, even though they were supposed to be her gardens, tended for her pleasure. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said. “Do you come here often?”
“When I can. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” There was a surprising note of pride in Susanna’s voice. Rosina looked around and nodded. She’d lived in cramped, dusty cities for most of her life, but even she could see that the rose garden was a treasure. “These French ones are new,” Susanna said, gesturing to a bed of pale pink roses in early bloom. “They had a pretty rough trip over here, so half of them were barely alive when they got here. It’s a good thing that Antonio managed to save them.” In an apologetic tone, she continued, “They’ll be at their best in another week or so.”
“I hadn’t realized you knew so much about the gardens.”
Susanna shrugged. “I spent a lot of time with my uncle growing up,” she said. “Especially after my mother died.”
Susanna’s father was the head groundskeeper, and Rosina had known that he was a widower, but she had only thought about that in the abstract. Rosina’s own parents had died when she was young, and she suddenly saw Susanna with a sense of recognition. She hadn’t thought much about her own life before she was the Countess Almaviva in quite some time, although Bartolo’s recent appearance had changed that. “Would you like to sit?” she said, motioning to a nearby bench, and was glad when Susanna quickly sat down with her.
Susanna told her about her childhood growing up on the estate. Her mother had died when she was thirteen, after which she’d spent most of her time with Antonio and his wife, acting like an older sister to Barbarina. Rosina marveled at the idea of Susanna the gardener’s niece, pruning and planting roses with her hands in the soil. She only ever saw Susanna indoors, dressing her, writing letters, and managing the other maids; the image in her mind seemed improbable, even precious. She listened as Susanna pointed out some of the rose varieties in the garden to her, their colors changed by the now-setting sun, and told her stories about the provenance of each one: a wedding present from a duke, a cutting from England, an estate heirloom strain over a hundred years old.
At some point, Rosina said, “My mother died when I was born.” Early evening had turned to late evening. Susanna nodded, and Rosina surmised that she already knew somehow. It suddenly felt strange that Susanna knew so much about her, when she knew so little about Susanna in turn. She continued, “My father died when I was young.” But the rest of the story was obvious: She had gone to live as the ward of Bartolo, who was a distant cousin, and she was here now. So she didn’t explain further, and Susanna didn’t pry.
She told Susanna, instead, about her sisters and her childhood in Madrid. Her oldest sister Maria had inherited their father’s shop, and for years had struggled to keep the business solvent; her other older sister, Isabella, had already been married at the time. “I think she fared a little better than Maria and I did, because of that,” Rosina said, surprising herself, and then became reluctant to continue. Even in talking about her sisters, there was an implicit suggestion of other lives she could have lived after all.
The night was chilly by the time they returned to the house. In the warm, well-lit confines of her bedroom, there seemed to be no more space for their conversation, so Susanna undressed her in a companionable silence. Still, that strange shared intimacy seemed to hang in the air for Rosina like a physical presence, amplified every time she briefly felt Susanna’s hands on her in those routine motions of unlacing her stays and brushing out her hair.
Rosina had feared that the opposite might happen, but it became easier to talk to Susanna after that. Susanna lingered in her room occasionally, but Rosina preferred to find Susanna outdoors, sunlit and enviably at ease. By the brook, and among the roses, and in the shade of the grove, they started to form, sometimes haltingly, something like a friendship.
Some subjects were relatively safe: novels they’d read, Cherubino’s engagement, Susanna’s many cousins, Rosina’s dinner party guests. Susanna also sometimes told her stories about the estate from before Rosina had arrived, and Rosina assumed she was telling the sanitized versions, much like the way she stripped the loneliness and dread from her stories about growing up under Bartolo’s eye in Seville.
The Count Almaviva returned, eventually, after a delay. The earliest roses of the summer were wilting by then. Rosina listened to his stories of his new position in London, and the diplomatic incident that needed an extra fortnight to resolve. A few days after he left again, Susanna asked to speak to her privately.
“He wasn’t delayed because of an incident,” Susanna said, looking tense. Rosina had off-handedly mentioned that detail to Susanna a few days ago. “He was in the countryside with another woman.”
Rosina froze. Some half-forgotten insinuations she’d heard from other wives immediately resurfaced in her mind, and she said, “Is it that English noblewoman I’d heard about?” before her other thoughts could catch up.
Immediately upon hearing herself saying the words, she realized that she’d already known it was true. She’d always known. Of course Susanna hadn’t been the only one.
“I just know that she’s a duchess.” Susanna hesitated. “But, yes, I think it’s the same one.” So she’d heard the rumors too.
This conversation, of course, felt uncomfortably familiar. She’d had one just like it on Susanna’s wedding day, and the similarity was almost comical. Rosina remembered her own anger and disbelief from that day, and her own jealousy, and the way Susanna had flinched at the way she’d reacted. “How do you know?” she asked.
“Figaro pieced it together and told me about it. My lord asked him to keep other people distracted, but he didn’t tell him the reason.” Susanna paused again, as though uncertain of whether to continue. “I think it’s pretty clear what he was doing.”
Rosina pressed for details. He’d been having an affair with this English duchess for some time, and had intended to end it on this trip after resolving to be a newly honest man, but it hadn’t taken much convincing from her for him to stay. He was likely with her right now. The Count Almaviva fancied himself subtle and wily, but in truth the duchess’s husband was stupid and couldn’t see what was right in front of him.
“When did you learn about this?” she asked.
“I didn’t know for certain until Figaro told me yesterday,” Susanna said.
Susanna must have suspected the rumors were true long before that. “Did you know about this when you agreed to help me?” Rosina said. “Help me expose him, I mean. You knew he was just going to go back to his mistress.” She realized, with a sinking feeling, that she’d been taking Susanna’s motivations for granted. There was still something she didn’t understand.
This time, Susanna looked straight at her. “I thought he might,” she said.
“But you still helped me,” Rosina said. “You were already married, and he wouldn’t have gone after you after that, I think he would have been decent enough at least—” she stopped. “It was your idea. You didn’t have to do it.” Susanna remained silent. “After that, I really thought for a while that he’d changed, but I suppose you already knew that he wouldn’t,” Rosina continued. She immediately regretted the accusatory note in her voice. She hadn’t noticed how angry she was.
It would have been unfair to expect Susanna to volunteer that information to her, and she’d been too afraid to seek it out for herself, and Susanna had no reason to expect Rosina to respond without hostility—but her sense of betrayal had become unmoored, and was now searching for something to latch onto. She wasn’t truly angry with Susanna, which even in the moment she knew.
Susanna said, “My lady, I thought it would shame him enough that he’d actually leave her. But I also wanted you to see.”
“See what?” Rosina couldn’t remember the last time she’d had this kind of conversation with anyone in her life, both intimate and confrontational at once. “What did you want me to see?”
She thought she knew what Susanna meant, though. She remembered sitting in the pavilion that night, wearing Susanna’s clothes and patiently allowing her own husband to seduce her, just hours after he’d tried to break down her cupboard door. He’d been exactly as charming as he had been when he sang to her on her balcony in Seville years ago. Then she’d finally assented, and she had been shocked by how brusquely he had taken her arm to lead her deeper into the wood. Thinking she was Susanna, he’d grabbed her as though she were a thing that belonged to him.
“I wasn’t really trying to help you win him back, my lady,” Susanna continued, and Rosina could have been imagining it, but the my lady had a bite to it. “I wanted you to see what he was like.”
Rosina found Susanna the next day. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was rude and ungrateful to you yesterday, and all for nothing.”
“For nothing?” Susanna said.
Rosina took a deep breath. “I don’t even want him,” she said, and started to cry for the first time in a long time. The walls were closing in on her. She was fifteen again, silent with grief as Bartolo’s housekeeper had shown her around the house, unable to think about anything except being trapped within those walls for the rest of her life.
Susanna had put her arm around her, and she found herself sobbing into Susanna’s shoulder. “My lady, I wanted to apologize too,” she heard Susanna murmur, but whatever Susanna’s reason for saying it, it no longer seemed to matter. Rosina let herself stay as she was for a few minutes, overwhelmed with embarrassment and gratitude, steeling herself to think about what might come next.
“I’m not sure whether I actually loved him in the first place,” Rosina said, a few days later, “or if I just wanted to escape.” She paused, appreciating the curious feeling of having said something that was obviously true, but made obvious only by being spoken aloud.
Outdoors in the gardens at twilight, sitting against an old broken fountain, the two of them were truly alone. Rosina remembered living in that small room on the upper floor of Bartolo’s house, standing on the balcony and longing for the city outside, before the balcony had been locked away from her too. There had been her own wedding night, equal parts rescue and kidnapping. Then her husband’s house on his estate, the bedroom, the study, the library, the small world she lived in now. Outside, it was easier to look up at the sky and the trees and not think about the house, so large and yet so cramped and full of people watching her.
By now, Rosina had told Susanna a few things about about her father’s death and her years in Seville. In turn, Susanna had started telling her the stories about life on the estate that she hadn’t wanted to share before. It made for a fair trade. “I envy my sister sometimes,” Rosina continued. “Maria, I mean. The one in Madrid. I used to resent her because she sent me to live with Bartolo immediately when he’d asked. Back then, I had no idea how difficult it had been for her to take over running the shop. I know she was just looking out for me, but it took me a long time to come to terms with it.”
Susanna’s mouth quirked, in that way that indicated sympathy. “So what about now?” she asked.
“I suppose I envy her for being unmarried,” Rosina said quietly. “She’s never told me this, but I think having to deal with our male cousins and their lawyers trying to get their hands on the shop immediately after our father died dissuaded her from marriage pretty effectively.” Susanna laughed. “It’s just hard to not envy the freedom she’s had, all these years. I know it’s not a perfect form of freedom, but—” Her sentence trailed off.
“I can understand,” Susanna said. She was picking wild flowers out of the grass and plucking the petals from them, letting them fall into her lap. “You haven’t visited her in some time, have you?”
“Not since before I was married,” Rosina said. “She came to the wedding, but that was the last time I saw her. I think I convinced myself that I had finally left that life behind.” She was talking, right now, to Bartolo’s daughter-in-law; shedding the past wasn’t so simple. “I suppose I could write to her again, even though it’s been a few months,” she began, with some hesitation.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“I’m not sure I would know what to say.” Rosina thought for a while. “I used to write to her a lot about being in love, and about being a countess, and that kind of thing.”
“And you thought you were moving up past her,” said Susanna, not unkindly. Rosina nodded.
Neither of them said anything for a while, but the silence wasn’t uncomfortable. As small as the moment had been, Susanna had seen her and understood her, and that sense of being understood fortified her.
“I think I’ll write to her tonight,” Rosina finally said. The sense of longing for freedom that she’d always felt when thinking about her oldest sister, transmuted into different forms throughout her life, now felt as overwhelming as it ever had. She wanted some of that freedom for herself, even if it was as small of a slice as she’d get from her sister writing back to her. She leaned back against the fountain and looked upward, and thought of the idea of a life as wide and open as the sky above her.
All in all, Rosina thought, it was a summer where she was learning to see. She learned to distinguish varieties of roses by sight, and to see them as interlocking pieces of the slowly-changing tapestry that was the rose garden, with everything budding and blooming in its time. Susanna had also shown her the wildflowers on the banks of the brook that had once been a river, the pine trees that past generations of Almavivas had planted to slowly reshape the natural boundaries of the woodland, and the overgrown, abandoned paths and sheds that Rosina surmised were now mostly known by the servants. Rosina found that she cherished being able to see the grounds as Susanna did, if only in occasional glimpses borne of a season’s instead of a lifetime’s worth of observation.
During one of her husband’s now-occasional periods at home, she once entered the library and saw her husband speaking to one of the new maids, asking her about herself with more interest than seemed necessary. Rosina thought of Susanna’s carefully guarded anger. “I heard you,” she said to her husband, after the girl had hurriedly left the room. The words came to her surprisingly easily. “Don’t speak to her like that again.”
She saw the way anger flashed across his face, followed by a smile that was meant to disarm her. “As my lady wishes,” he said, clearly flattered by what he perceived as Rosina’s jealousy.
Rosina nearly laughed. For a moment, she had an impulse to try to bridge the gap between what she knew of herself and whatever it was that he saw when he looked at her. But the moment passed, and she turned away and left.
“I’m not sure whether he really ever loved me, either,” Rosina said. The subject of Rosina’s marriage was one that they circled back to occasionally, always resuming where they last ended, as though they were holding a single, slowly unfolding conversation that interleaved with everything else. There was a late-summer thunderstorm outside, and Rosina had left the curtains open and the balcony door slightly ajar. Inside, Susanna was taking the pins out of her hair. “He couldn’t have really known who I was. I was just a pretty girl on a balcony to him.”
“Does that bother you?” said Susanna.
“I suppose it’s only fair,” Rosina said. Susanna laughed, in a familiar rueful way. Rosina knew she hadn’t answered the question. She was bothered; it was painful for her husband to not love her. Sometimes the shame from being in pain when she had no reason and no right was worse than the pain itself, but they were both there, the secondary shame and the original pain.
“What’s it like to be married to Figaro?” Rosina asked, changing the subject while not really changing it at all. She felt a strange mixture of curiosity and dread just thinking about Susanna’s marriage, which seemed to have changed her own life as much as it changed Susanna’s, entangling them together. It was best to veer from one difficult, nearly undiscussable subject to another.
“It’s lovely, actually,” Susanna said.
She started undoing the fastenings at the back of Rosina’s dress. Rosina suddenly remembered, with perfect clarity, hurriedly unlacing Susanna out of her wedding dress on her wedding night. “I do think Figaro ought to be the one doing this,” she had said, out of mild frustration, and Susanna had laughed brightly. Rosina suddenly couldn’t remember why she’d asked Susanna the question. She was grateful, too, that Susanna couldn’t see her face.
“I can’t agree with your sister that being married is entirely awful. But I can’t blame either of you,” Susanna continued. “To be honest, and I’m sure you realize this, I don’t know much about marriage. I’ve only been married for a few months, and I often just channel the advice that my aunt and my cousins give me.”
“And to be perfectly honest,” Susanna said, “I know my lord spent a lot of time and effort winning you from Bartolo.” It was slightly tongue-in-cheek; they both knew that Rosina would never have gotten out if it hadn’t been for her own schemes, although Rosina’s husband didn’t seem to remember it. Also implicit in Susanna’s words was the mirrored version, and you spent a lot of time and effort winning him from me. Susanna continued, “I know I’m very fortunate, but Figaro and I have known each other since before he moved to Seville, and I’m glad I’ve never had to win him from anyone else.”
Susanna shrugged, and Rosina sensed that she’d reached the end of what she was willing to say.
Susanna had answered the question, in a way. She hadn’t said, I’m glad Figaro has never been unfaithful to me, or I’m glad Figaro has never fallen in love with anyone else, not that Rosina suspected him in the least of doing those things. Susanna meant something else: the way her husband had triumphantly grabbed her when he’d thought she was Susanna, the way Bartolo and her husband had threatened each other over her hand in marriage as she silently watched, the way she’d felt something when her husband had begged for forgiveness but nothing when he’d stood up and embraced her.
Rosina turned it over in her head that night as she went to sleep, alone, with the balcony door still open.
Rosina found Susanna outside the next day. The ground was still soft and wet from the rain, and the sun had already set.
Seeing herself had been difficult. It turned out that the opposite of a difficult thing could also be difficult: It hadn’t been easy to pretend to not hear the rumors about her husband or to convince herself that she still wanted him, but it had been even harder to tell herself the truth. Even now, she didn’t fully understand what she saw in herself. She wanted the kind of love that came without conquest or victory, the kind that she could sense only in the negative space around what she already knew, if such a thing was even possible. Even seeing that desire in herself was the relatively easy part. She didn’t know what to ask for, and asking for anything might be a monstrous thing to do.
She stood before Susanna, and felt herself trembling, and didn’t speak.
“Rosina,” Susanna said. She waited, with an expression that even Rosina couldn’t read.
It was difficult to thread that needle of offering without demanding, but Rosina knew she owed the effort to both of them. She wanted, at least, to hear Susanna say her name again; she wanted a life where that was possible.
“I’d like to be yours,” she said, trying to swallow her fear. “But only if you want me.”
Susanna smiled, closed the distance between them, and kissed her.
“Maria wrote back to me,” Rosina said. “She says she’d be delighted if I visited her.” Rosina had been guarding that information, because the idea of having some respite from the estate, of seeing her sister, of making amends, seemed too precious for anyone else to know. But Susanna was in her bed right now, and if she wanted to save her news for a happy occasion, she would probably be hard-pressed to find a better one.
“That’s great news,” Susanna said, and kissed her. It was hardly the second or the tenth time, but something about it made Rosina so happy that she could barely speak. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt joy like this, pure and bright and as uncomplicated as she could hope for. Her life was opening up. “Do you want me to come with you?” Susanna asked, once they felt like talking again.
“Of course I do,” Rosina said. She leaned in to kiss Susanna this time, not that they were keeping track. The curtains were closed, but as Rosina closed her eyes, she saw an image of the night sky under her eyelids.