The Even More Incredible Afterlife of Mr. Phileas McNeill

There is not a lot that hasn’t been already said about Phileas McNeill, one of the most spoken about men of his time. His passion as a gourmand is legendary, having eaten every meal known to humankind, and numerous more that weren’t, within his moderately extended lifetime.

It is no surprise, then, that when he passed from within the confines of this world, that there was another where there was much yet to be said about him.

The realm of souls was very different from the realm of the living. It was an interminable void, filled with a cloying impermeable darkness that was not so cold as much moistly warm. It had the consistency of honey and was just as sickly sweet. Yet paradoxically, it was empty of substance. What subtle interaction of forces that condemned the soul to a constant pressure within the void was obviously quite unknown, but was ever present.

A soul might be said to glow ethereally. No, really, it does. It has a dim light, which might said to be proportional to its presence of character in life, but it is never really bright.

As one might imagine the void was empty – a continuum of empty space. There was lots of space, but not entirely empty. The space was empty, but there were things in between the space… A freshly manifested soul could only perceive things very close to it, its abilities not yet developed to the medium, however, the void was easily disturbed by a soul’s presence or passing and the subtle forces thus displaced (or altered) lent an observant spirit a sense of sight or hearing. Many, many souls would never develop this ability and thus spent their eternities alone and isolated.

As grim as this might sound, many other souls would develop or evolve to such an extent that they would find a way out of this void. Incredible, yes – I know…

So it was with the faint traces of Ullyean shrimp on his tongue that the soul of Phileas McNeill came to this morbid realm. A fledgling soul with little to no developed ability in this new world.

As a soul, he was somewhat amorphous. Most souls are birthed at the moment of death – sharp, detailed, defined by the life before it: the universe’s summarizing sketch of that person’s existence. McNeill, in contrast, was wobbly and blurry, defying easy classification. One might even say that the universe itself failed to describe McNeill, so incredible was that man! Or perhaps there was a chemical, physical or cosmological reason that strains human intelligence to define. Either way, his soul was vague, malleable and changing.

The darkness was more like a misty blue grey to him. He perceived things inside it, few and far apart. He would come to know these as other souls, but it would take him a long time to figure that out.  Absolute distance is impossible to define in a featureless void, where size had no meaning and fluctuated often. The only frame of reference to measure distances by were the ever-moving, fleeting glimpses of souls disappearing into and out of the cloying mist. They might be meters away, or light years – tt made no difference to him, he supposed, as although he could move around freely after a few experimental wobbles, it never seemed as though he were going anywhere. He had no limbs, but one might imagine pseudopods of wobbling soul material, ectoplasm if you will, that could pull, push or otherwise propel him about. Still, he was young and there was much to discover.

The question of distance meant even less to him eventually. As he developed the means to see into neighboring dimensions, he found that he could strain his eyes, if you could call them that – those sensory patches of slightly more focused and developed plasm – and see visions amidst the ether. Hallucinations he thought at first, and then memories, for what else were they, these souls whose form was defined by their pasts? Until by chance of fortune (as had been his most of his life) he had happened upon a scene pertaining to him: his own funeral replete with mourning friends, lovers (of whom he had plenty), gloating enemies (of which he had more), hired women (in case no one showed up, but who had looked good in black lace nonetheless), droves of fans and media, and even the Simba-Moratorio band from Rigel XIV that he had requested. Until that point, it had merely been a dream, a wish from his dying self of how he had wished to see his funeral unfold. That fond memory had ended when one of his more mediocre and desperate rivals in the fold of interstellar gourmandizing had slipped a knife from under his funeral coat and cut a sliver of McNeill’s flesh, directly and surreptitiously through the dead man’s suit, and gingerly popped it into his mouth. The man had winced at the sour taste of embalming fluid that had, by means of capillary action, advanced throughout his tissue…  The vision then abated with McNeill’s ability to correctly focus it.

From there, he realized he could see anywhere within the real world so long as he had had some tie to it from life. He needed to visualize the area, and he could image it. But despite his many travels and the vast selection of worlds he had visited, and cultures he had tasted, he was ultimately bored of it all. After all, he had lived a great many years, and had a great many memories, but he didn’t wish to re-explore them all. As in life, he wanted to do everything once, and move along.

Instead, he turned his attention to seeing more of his new home, this featureless void of the dead.

“It’s its about time you got here, McNeill.”  The voice, if that is what it could really be described as in this other, more distant, silent realm of wayward souls and beleaguered spirits, belonged to Plantagenet Wisconsin Jones I’chlox-mao Tsien – an economist of some note who had literally eaten himself to death at a gourmet-styled Saturnalia re-enactment festival. It had been his misfortune, and that of many others, that the dinner had progressed from conventional foodstuffs to that of living flesh, eaten directly from the bones of those in attendance, with each attendee desperately trying to outdo his or her rival in their drug induced enthusiasm for novelty and one-upmanship.  Plantagenet Jones, for few cared to remember let alone pronounce his moniker of varied if not fully pedigreed heraldry, was not a very nice man. And that trend continued into the after life. He spoke, “I was beginning to get lonely. There are so few people of decent breeding in this accursed place.”

“I’ve never liked you Jonesy,” Phileas responded, “We have only one thing in common and that is good food.”

“And of that there is nothing in this stygian abyss.”

“Stygian? More melodrama! Stygian describes, “underground” – this… is more like an ocean. Aquatic perhaps. Really Jonesy, you could at least try to be more original. You always followed where I led. You stood on the shoulders of giants to such a degree that the fall from grace killed you.”

Jones sighed deeply – a sublime motion for a soul to make since it had very little substance to do it with – a subtle expulsion of ectoplasm briefly blossomed in the dark before dissipating. Only souls existed in this realm – everything else was consumed by the darkness. When a soul sighed, or cried, or bled, and the plasm was separated from its host, it merely flew apart, its energy disappearing into the tumult of nearby universes, unable to be sustained by means of its spiritual umbilical. Phileas noted that Jones’ sigh was disgustingly similar to the last time he had seen him alive – at a party where the supposed gourmand was unable to hold his twentieth course within his not-so-meager body and uncontrollably expelled vomit over his own wives.

Phileas McNeill and Plantagenet Jones could not really be any more opposite. He was tall, where the latter was short. One was lithe and skinny, while his rival was obese and waxy. He was successful, while…

Of course, success is defined in many ways. Jones had made a fortune ruining lesser businessmen and had founded an interstellar consortium of investors, whose money he had then squandered on his many fetishes that ran the gamut of fast women, men, animals and even genetically engineered organisms that rarely consisted of more than a wide variety of orifices that either received objects or expelled them sloppily.  He had lost more money than most planet-bound corporations made, and his indulgences were legendary in his own distinct way, but compared to the illustrious McNeill in gourmet and gourmand circles, he was a small fish in a very big pond.

McNeill, on the other hand, had started out with nothing but his imagination, a wonderful palate and such style and elegance that by virtue of his presence he could dominate a room. And thus, he was propelled through greater and loftier circles of society who enjoyed his personality and his recommendations of joyous cuisine. He would often act as a Master of Ceremonies, or sommelier, or some other culinary expert for friends and friends of friends until he was inspired to write a food column and many a tome of collected recipes. When he announced his final, and possibly most revered, exploit – that of eating every food known to humankind, he was already the most influential man in the food industry. His recommendation could turn a start-up fast food stand into a multi-stellar food phenomenon overnight, and his criticism could bankrupt it just as quickly. The fame and fortune never went to his head though. Ego, he thought, was for those without imagination. He lived, and longed, for his next meal and the sensations that would go with it.

His life was not without regrets: there was no one to continue his line, no family to receive his wealth, and although he had made numerous arrangements for the money to be divided amongst several charities, it was ultimately held in bureaucratic limbo by pretenders and retainers who thought they had every right to it by virtue of friendship, loans, liens and many other kinds of debts supposedly unpaid. Phileas had viewed it all through the veil that separates the realm of the living from the dead with disgust. “Fucking ingrates” was his only endorsement.

“One would have thought your death would have brought you to your senses, McNeill. Repressed the irrepressible Phileas McNeill!”

“I find that I am with utter relief that your sense of humor did not survive your passing, Jonesy. Presumably it was dead on arrival, perhaps several decades before you actually died.”

“I don’t have time to listen to your prattling, McNeill.”  McNeill pondered this. No time for prattling? There was very little to actually do, and time was in abundant supply, if it passed at all.

“Look. I know that I’m probably not amongst the most desirable of comrades to have in this bleak existence, but we need to get along. Our survival is at stake here!”

Survival?

“We’re dead Jonesy!  This place is a repository of souls, each and every one a bon-a-fide dead person. Some blind, some stupid, but all irrevocably dead!”

“I can tell that you’re new. You obviously haven’t been dead that long. Impressive. I thought that you’d die not long after I did.”

“Hoped, perhaps.”

“Regardless, you’ve got much to learn. I’ve been here…” he lost his train of thought, unable to recount how long, since time really didn’t exist per se, unless you defined it by means of the motion of visible souls, and even then, not a particularly useful metric, “Well, I’ve seen things you don’t know about! They’re out there!”

“How obtuse!”

“McNeill! Don’t be a fool! Obviously you’ve learned something of this place, else we wouldn’t be talking to each other! Most fledgling souls cannot speak, or even think. They can move – oscillating through the ether like sperm – “

“Oh, that’s rich! Have you been thinking of that for a lon-“

“But have you considered how advanced a soul could evolve to be?  You can see and hear, move and talk, and what else have you learned…?  How has your ethereal body evolved since you were spawned in this place? Can you image? Or heal? Or sting?”

“What ARE you talking about? You’ve gone completely mad, Jonesy. I don’t think you were ever fit to die.”

“I thought that is what you would say. Well, if my words mean nothing to you, then that can only mean one thing. I’ll give you one last chance, McNeill…”

“One last chance at what?”

“You are either with me, or against me!”

There was a moment’s (or a hour’s, or a year’s, a millennium?) realization that passed through McNeill’s body like fear might course through an antelope’s circulatory system when a lion is within the last two or three strides of a kill. It was long enough to educate McNeill on one of the finer points of life within the soul-filled void. That of the presence of an ecosystem…

The soul shape of Plantagenet Jones suddenly dilated, expanding to two-three times its original size, and something that could only be described as a mouth was suddenly engorged to ghastly proportions.

A food chain…

But the mouth was so slow in closing, and they never did. By the time those immaterial jaws had closed in on McNeill, his own soul had changed. Jones’ own words had tipped him off. Image… check, Heal…  nope. Sting… What an odd supposition… Can a soul sting?  It was such an outrageous thought that it had to be true. Jonesy had seen souls that could…  He was not asking expecting a positive answer. He was assaying a kill…

McNeill reacted through focused and sudden fear, and his soul shape responded in kind. There was a flash of intense light, much stronger than any soul could passively put out, and Jones’ soul shape hung listlessly in the mist, slowly tipping over toward a neutral flopping angle. Vague tendrils floated in the immaterial medium, like hair underwater, a quickly dimming jellyfish.

He had no idea how he had stung his rival, nor how he would evolve a means of absorbing the enormous bulk of its body. Those answers – and many more – would come to him, by accident and even careful thought and meditation.

He did not understand any of this. Some of it even shocked him, but he had no choice but to embrace his new abilities and use them without hesitation. He had no desire to discover what fate lay in wait for devoured souls such as Jones. Dissolution, he surmised, which was no fate for such as he.

He did only what he knew how, and had spent nearly all of his adult, corporeal life doing. He knew how to eat. And so eat he did! McNeill had no way of divining its rival’s taste, for he had no way to taste him. He sensed a slight increase in the density of the ether surrounding him, much like mucous suspended in solution, or an oyster in a vial of liquid, and it passed within him slowly, ingesting an infinitesimal amount with each subdued bite.

Afterward, he felt glorious. Elated at the possibilities of this new realm of existence. He became aware of a lot more in the ether, as though his meal had awakened in him powers that were latent but undeveloped. It was no longer as dark as he had thought or imagined. Now, in place of a limitless gloom through which he had blundered, there was a faint glow that illuminated a countless number of souls similar to his own. His metaphorical eyes had widened, and he felt a smile tug at his immaterial lips.

Here was his new menu.

There were so many different kinds, so many different flavors… A billion or more souls (an infinite amount even!) and each one a unique taste experience. Perhaps he could eat them all!

So he ate.

And ate.

And ate…

St. Catharines, 2006.

© Ken McCulloch, All Rights Reserved.