The Annual Conference of the Ladies in White

I’ve been driving for six hours when a hotel appears on an otherwise empty stretch of road. It has turrets and a fussy gazebo, like an antique wedding cake preserved by moonlight, and a red sign promising “vacancy.” Whatever it costs, my emergency stash will have to cover it.

I’m so tired I pause over the hotel registry, struggling to remember my own name; upstairs, I collapse onto the bed, his words repeating in my mind. You’ll never make it on your own.

He’s right. I didn’t get far. Tomorrow, I’ll go back.


The thought settles like a weight on my chest, just as another weight settles near my hip.

A lady sits on the edge of the bed. She wears a cloudy dress; her black eye twitches and her torn lips tremble. Another lies beside me, fingerbones interlaced over her heart. A third lifts a sweater from my suitcase. Their faces are ghastly and pretty. Their flesh hangs like fine lace.

I grab my keys and run.

Outside my door, the ladies are everywhere—sweeping through the halls, stalking up the stairs and falling down again, one by one, into a silent pile. They sit on the lobby sofas before a gothic-lettered sign: Welcome, Ladies in White! A lady slips a lanyard around my neck, the name-card blank except for a crimson smear. Suddenly, I know where she came from and how she died. She’s the Lady in White of Kinsale, Ireland, who hung herself after her father killed her bridegroom.

The ghost turns away to fill a paper cup from the coffee urn. Next to her, eating a complimentary cookie, is Haapsalu Castle’s Lady in White, from Estonia, who dressed up as a choirboy to continue an affair with a clergyman; they bricked her into a wall. The Berlin Palace’s Lady in White starved behind a wall, too, but she sticks with the other German Ladies in White, from Haus Aussell and Spandau Citadel, who are already at the bar. On the mezzanine, Brazil’s Dama Brancas weep for the babies they died birthing. The murdered Kaperosas, who hitchhike the Filipino highways, head toward the office center. They like taxis, radios, and midnight headlights, which makes them distressingly modern to the others.

The other attendees of the Annual Conference of the Ladies in White.

The corners of the name-card prick my skin. The blood streak is unintelligible, but I can guess what it means. They’re admitting me to their sorority of destroyed women.

The cold spark of my survival instinct flares. I dash past the oblivious receptionist and through the front door.

Outside, the Chinese Nu Gui wander the lawn, searching for the men who wronged them. In the gazebo, La Llorona, the keynote speaker, drips with river water. The Siberian Maidens of Uley, abandoned and driven to suicide, applaud.

I dive into my car. I’ve already hit the gas pedal when I notice the Lady in the passenger seat and another four crammed in the back; there’s one on the roof, the ratty ends of her hair sweeping the top of the windshield like rain that won’t fall. They wail and thrash; they blink in and out of the rearview mirror; they whisper their addresses, it’s almost curfew, mother and daddy are waiting.

Headlights swell before me. My car has swerved over the yellow lines. I brace for impact, but then a horn blares and the lights slice away, sparing me.

If I die on the road, I’m afraid I’ll become one of the Ladies in White.

I pull into the first parking lot, run through puddles bright with neon, and enter an empty 24-hour diner. I take a booth and watch helplessly as the Ladies process up the ramp and through the door. They squeeze into booths, spin on counter stools. They spill sugar on already gritty tabletops. They examine laminated menus and build towers of creamers. They weave paper napkins into their hair.

They’re not chasing me, after all. They’re just excited to leave the hotel—their eternal hotels and castles, highways and rivers. My fear fades into relief; my relief is chilled by sadness. How tragic they appear, now that I’ve stopped to really see them.

The waitress arrives. It’s past midnight, but she’s cheery.

“Just you?” she asks.

“Just me.”

Her smile falters. “Are you okay? There’s blood…” She touches beneath her throat, where her collar opens.

The Ladies stop their fidgeting and twirling. They watch.

I mirror the waitress’s gesture and find something cold against my chest. The name tag—I whip it over my head, rip it free from my hair.

It’s not a conference lanyard, but a necklace, my name pressed into a gold plate. It was a gift. Never take it off, he said, and I never did, even when I left.

“I guess it was just a reflection,” the waitress says. “I thought…”

“I’m fine,” I say. The vision of the smeared blood—they weren’t claiming me. They were warning me. Don’t become another anonymous death.

The Willow Park Lady in White, drowned by her husband on her wedding night, puts down her spoon and disappears.

One by one, they all disappear. They take their bloody gowns and their bones, their wails and their moans, their promise rings and their dead babies, leaving me among black vinyl and ivory linoleum, saltshakers and dirty cups, clean windows and flashing cars, highways stretching into the future.

The last Lady winks at me before she vanishes.

I order breakfast and plan my next move—I won’t go back, not now or ever. When I’m done eating, I consider leaving the necklace behind, but I decide to take it with me. My name is one of my last possessions. I intend to keep it.


FFO: How did the idea for this story germinate?

The story started with the title: “The Annual Conference of the Ladies in White.” I love Ladies in White legends, and especially how versions have proliferated across the world. You can learn so much from the nuances, the tiny regional and large cultural differences in how we imagine what it means to be a wronged—or wrong—woman. But first, I thought it was funny: imagine all these ghosts, members of the same ghost club, gathering together. A creepy-funny premise, though, does not a story make. The next thing I had to figure out was my main character: What kind of person, exactly,needs to encounter this spectral congregation?

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