I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war. I’m on the beach, but I don’t know how I got here. My mind is as dark as the night. . . . I spend the whole night on the beach. But when the sun’s faint light begins to bend around the Earth, I see him. . . . There, coming toward me, out of the light, is a man. . . . Behind the man a faint curtain of light rises to the sky out of the ocean. He wears the light like a robe, though I see he’s dressed like me. Jeans and a T-shirt, no shoes. And that he’s older than I am, a lot older, maybe mid-thirties. He walks right toward me. He walks right into my eyes.
So begins the spellbinding story of Warren Harlan Pease, a young U.S. Army sniper freshly returned from the Iraq War to his native New Hampshire. What follows is a page-turning adventure that is also a powerful meditation on religion and war, love and loss.
The Last Day answers questions and asks many more. Armed with a sniper’s rifle and his deeply held faith, Specialist Pease travels across ideological borders and earns an appreciation for his enemy’s culture and for what connects us all as human beings. “War doesn’t test your faith in Jesus,” Warren comes to realize. “It tests your faith in yourself.” Upon returning home, he spends an entire day with Jesus visiting and contemplating his own life with fresh eyes, and a willing heart. He examines his relationship to those he loves, and grapples with the pain he has been carrying inside since the death of his mother when he was just a boy.
This extraordinary work of compassion and healing grace combines the themes of religion, war and poetry in a way that is wholly original, and unforgettable. It will resonate with skeptics and believers, be shared and discussed between friends and among families.
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The Last Day
By James Landis
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2009 J.D. Landis
All rights reserved.
The Isles of Shoals
I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war. I'm on the beach, but I don't know how I got here. My mind is as dark as the night.
I walk, but only back and forth. New Hampshire has a tiny coastline. A lot of it is rock, sent down from Maine when God made the Earth, to keep us on our toes down here. I walk where the sand is wet and hard and cold. It holds my toes, and my toes hold it. In the desert, where I fought, the sand was inhospitable.
The darkness is a gift. I would tell my little baby girl when she woke up in the middle of the night, "Dodie, there's nothing to be afraid of." I've always loved the dark. In the dark, you light up inside. Things become clearer the darker it is.
Out here, on the beach, I'm alone. I always have been. Or as long as I can remember. As long as since my mother died.
I'd come here in the middle of the night to find myself and to get away from others. The beach is a place of memories. When you come here, you take your life with you. When you go other places, like the city or the desert, you leave your life behind.
I remember everything.
Except how I got here.
I spend the whole night on the beach. But when the sun's faint light begins to bend around the Earth, I see him.
Out there, ten miles out in the ocean, are the Isles of Shoals. There are nine of them. On the clearest day you can see five at most. They sit like flat gray stones on the skin of the water. If it weren't for them, your eyes would disappear into the horizon.
I've never been to the Shoals. I'm not a sailor. I'm a soldier. I've been content to stand here looking out at them. When there's haze or fog, or night has set in, I imagine them. They're always there for me. They make the ocean safe.
They sit off to the east, of course. New Englanders are always looking east. To where we came from. To where we go to fight for freedom. From this coast, the only coast I know, the sun always rises behind the Shoals. Its first light brings them up out of the darkness of the ocean. One by one they begin to glow.
There, coming toward me, out of the light, is a man. He seems to step on the islands one by one, the way I would cross the slippery stones of the Swift River by the Kancamagus Highway up north to try to reach my father.
Behind the man a faint curtain of light rises to the sky out of the ocean. He wears the light like a robe, though I see he's dressed like me. Jeans and a T-shirt, no shoes. And that he's older than I am, a lot older, maybe midthirties.
He walks right toward me. He walks right into my eyes.
In the war, we were taught to be suspicious of strangers. That's what they called it: suspicious. What they meant was fearful: we were taught to be afraid of strangers.
But I'm not afraid of this man. I'm home now. I still don't know how I got here. But I feel that nothing, and no one, can hurt me.
Still, I want to be alone. I'm thinking, How come on an empty beach if one person puts his chair down and another person arrives, he puts his chair down right near the first person?
He comes right up to me.
"I know you want to be alone, Warren," he says.
"Do I know you?" I ask.
"You do now," he says.
"Well, you don't know me," I say. "Anyone who knows me knows I don't call myself Warren. Nobody calls me Warren."
"I do," he says.
"Fine," I say. "Call me Warren. Who are you?"
"Will you believe me if I tell you?"
"How do I know?"
He laughs. "That's just the right answer."
I don't know what he means by that. But I'm flattered.
And then I know.
"My name is Raphael," he says.
He smiles. "I like to name myself after painters."
"I don't know much about painting," I say. "But I like poetry."
"You should," he says.
"Is that an order?" I ask.
He laughs. He has a nice laugh. His eyes laugh along with his voice.
"You probably had enough orders," he says. "In the Army, I mean."
I look down at myself to see if I'm wearing a uniform. I'm not.
"There's a hole in your shirt." He touches it. I can feel the tip of his finger just over my heart.
I expect the hole to close up. It doesn't, but I suddenly feel wonderful. Immortal. It's not a new feeling. It isn't even all that unusual. It's the feeling you get when for a moment you're in harmony with time and space. It's the feeling of being alive. It's the warmth of life.
"Let's change shirts," he says.
I look around. "I guess I didn't bring my duffel."
He smiles. "I meant, let's exchange shirts."
I put on his shirt.
He puts on mine.
The hole is still there.
"Tell me the truth," I say. "How did you know my name?"
"A friend of a friend."
"And who might that be?"
"Me," he says, and turns and starts to walk away.
"Wait," I say.
He keeps walking. I'm surprised to see that his feet make prints in the sand.
"Call me Ray," he says back.
I follow him along the beach.
It isn't hard to keep up with him. Even for me with a limp. I realize I don't remember this either: getting my right leg wounded. They used to tell us that if you get hit, you won't remember getting hit. They used to tell us that the mind is self-correcting. Or was it self-protective? The body remembers; the mind forgets. Something like that.
I don't even know I have a limp until I start to limp after Jesus.
He's easy to keep up with because he keeps stopping. He's like a little kid on the beach, turning everything into a mystery. Or turning every mystery into something simple.
The tide is halfway in. The sun is halfway up on the distant horizon, balanced for a moment on the edge of this wondrous planet. It frightens me to see it. I know it's made of fire. I fear the fire. And I fear the fire going out.
The beach is covered with everything the last tide brought in and the new tide has not yet taken back. Empty shells, stones, wood, a couple of bricks, nautical rope in neon colors the lobstermen now use, some of the s — — stupid people throw in the ocean, like beer cans, and all the living things that come in with the tide and hope not to get trapped in the sun or eaten by the crying seabirds.
Jesus likes to step on empty shells. He even goes out of his way when he sees a shell, whole or half, lying on the sand, tempting him. So he zigzags a bit as he walks up the beach. This also makes it easier for me to catch up.
"I like to hear them crunch," he says when I finally reach him.
"It's kind of destructive," I say.
"We call them 'shells' for a reason," he answers, and leaves it at that.
"But this ..." He kneels down and digs two fingers into the wet sand. He feels around in there like someone doing trills on a little keyboard. Sure enough, he comes out with a little muddy ball that looks like a dirty marble. He moves it around his fingers in a circle. The wet dirt begins to fall off. Then he kind of scrubs the thing in his hair. I think how he's getting all this dirt in his hair until I have a memory of Bethie inviting me into the shower with her and when I get in there she's got mud all over her hair and I say, "What the heck is that?" and Bethie laughs and says, "It's clay." She reaches for the plastic bottle. She reads, "Australian Kaolin Clay." Sure enough, after the shower, when we were laying on the bed because we'd had to get out of the shower quick not to leave Dodie alone in her crib for too long, and now we have Dodie cuddled between us, Bethie's hair was so beautiful you'd think it was shining with some inner beauty.
Jesus has perfectly nice hair. But I can't see that it gets all shiny from the mud. It's short hair, not like in the pictures of him. Short like mine. Mine is military and his is short, probably because summer's coming. I know he knows the number of hairs on my head. And probably on his own. Everybody thinks, Oh, New Hampshire, it must be nice and cool there in the summer. It can be a furnace. A wet furnace. Not like the desert. Here the sun comes through the haze and leaves you lathered with sweat day and night. There it doesn't separate heat from light.
Bethie's hair is long. Or was. I haven't seen her in more than a year and a half. I don't know if I could bear to see her ever again.
"Look," says Jesus.
I've been thinking so hard about Bethie I expect that Jesus has produced her there for me on the beach.
But when I look, it's at the little marble he's got in his hand. All clean.
"A snail," I say.
Jesus takes a few steps toward the water, where the waves are less waves than they are a blanket being drawn up gently to your chin by your mother tucking you in at night. The sun is almost whole in the sky. It sits on the edge of the Earth held up by nothing but faith. There's a straight line of white light all the way from the sun to Jesus' hand in the water. He rinses off the snail and shakes the water off and presents it to me with another "Look."
"A snail," I say again.
He nods. "A mud whelk. Isn't it beautiful? Look. It's black when it's wet. But when you dry it off it's brown until you look more closely and you see the red, here, along the bulgy part of the whorls. Like people's hair sometimes, you see it in the right light and it has that beautiful red tinge. And look inside, Warren!" He holds it up close to my eyes, like I was an old man. "See the foot in there? The little guy sticks that out when the coast is clear, so to speak, and he walks along looking for algae to eat. There are probably thousands of these right where we're walking. Sometimes there's a strong wave and you're suddenly walking on a carpet of mud whelks."
"I know what you mean." I always tried to avoid stepping on them. I think about how I didn't mind killing people, though. It's hard enough to live in the world. I'm glad I didn't make it.
"Say goodbye," he says, and drops the snail into the water.
"Goodbye," I say, though I feel kind of stupid.
"I was talking to the mud whelk." Jesus smiles at me before he walks back onto the sand and toward some of the rocks that I picture dragged by the glaciers out of Maine and released like animal droppings in long narrow clusters of granite. When the rock is wet it gets dark and slippery. With the tide still out, and the sun just up, and the air clear, the granite is almost pale.
Jesus squats and puts his hand on the rock. His nails are no cleaner than mine. But his fingers are longer. The veins on the back of his hand are the kind guys envy. His hands are almost too strong.
"I love rock," says Jesus.
"I should think so," I say. I'm not being sarcastic, exactly, but I know there's that question about whether the rock the church is built on is Jesus or Peter. I'm ready to vote for Jesus, if he wants me to.
"See this?" He points to pink specks in the granite. "Feldspar. But what I really love is this."
He reaches down between the slabs of rock and picks up a small, darker piece of granite that has a vein of quartz running all the way through its center. "Here." He hands it to me. "Put this in your pocket."
I stick it in there. I go to arrange it in the deepest corner of the pocket the way guys do and I feel something else there. I pull out a couple of what look like little gold rocks.
"What are those?" asks Jesus.
"Bullets," I say.
"Where did you get them?"
"From a woman I met."
"Somebody's mother," says Jesus, like he knows.
"Somebody's mother," I say.
I put the bullets back in my pocket. While I do that, Jesus puts his fingers right into the sand again and comes out this time with what looks like a worm.
"This guy's like you," he says.
"Thanks a lot." Not that I'm bothered by worms. I just don't want to be one.
"They like to be alone," he says.
How does he know? He found me alone. But I think he sees in my soul that I'm a soul alone. I think he knows that everyone's a soul alone. Until we die.
The worm's about three inches long. He holds it from one end. It fights against the air, dancing. "See how it's like the rock," says Jesus. "It has these little dark eyespots. It's also like that mud whelk, with these bands. It's named after these bands."
"Banded. Banded feather duster worm."
"Why feather duster?"
"I have no idea!"
Jesus drops the worm back onto the sand. It wriggles against the hard rock before it slides its soft, gummy body beneath it.
I wonder how many worms this rock has eaten.
Jesus finds a beer bottle. It's got sand in it. He picks it up and shoves it in the pocket of his jeans. "Maybe you need a bottle-deposit law in New Hampshire," he says.
"Whaddya mean, you? You're not from here?" I ask him, sort of playing around.
"You got me there," he answers.
We walk until we come to our shoes. Two pairs.
Mine are Wellco Schwarzkopf combat boots. Used to be tan. Now they're nearly black with old sweat and for all I know sweet crude Arab oil that's hard to tell from blood, as it should be. We all coveted the Oakley Assault Elite Special Forces boot. They were black to begin with and you could tuck your Army Combat Uniform cargoes under the tongue and look cool. Heck, they're literally cooler than the Norms, and their laces are fire-resistant. But they're shorter too and let the sand in. They were "new soldier" when at least a few of us wanted to honor the "old soldier." Old soldiers are like old gods. They shouldn't be traded for new ones. Not even in the deserts of Kedar.
I don't remember leaving my boots here. I don't know why Jesus' shoes should be next to mine. Or how they got here.
"Are you ready to leave the beach?" he says.
"Not really," I say.
"It hurts to walk," I lie. I mean, it does hurt to walk. But that's not the reason I don't want to leave the beach. I love the beach. I don't know how I got here. But this is the only place I want to be right now.
"Maybe wearing your boots will help," says Jesus.
"I don't think so."
"Sit down." It's an order. As a soldier, I'm used to orders. What I'm not used to is someone who gives an order and then holds out his hand.
I take Jesus' hand and lower myself onto the sand. He kneels down before me and takes one of my boots and pulls out my white PT sock and shakes sand out of the boot and the sock. Then he slips the sock onto my foot and pulls on the boot and ties it just tight enough. By the time I stop to think, Hey, Jesus is putting on my boot, he's tied it and is doing the same with the right one.
"Stand up." This time he doesn't give me his hand. This time, when I think I need it more.
But I don't. I stand up, and I realize my right leg doesn't hurt anymore. I take a step, two steps, a few more, away from Jesus and then right back toward him. I'm not limping. "You healed me," I say.
"I think all you needed was to put on your boots."
"I don't think so," I say.
"You just needed the support."
Yeah, I'm thinking, your support.
Jesus puts on his own socks and shoes. They aren't sandals, which is just as well, because guys around here who wear sandals with jeans are not guys from around here. But Jesus' shoes aren't either those dainty slip-ons some men wear that leave half the top of their foot exposed and all of their ridiculousness. He's wearing Timberlands. A local product. From Stratham, New Hampshire. Jesus is no fool.
"Let's go," he says. Before I can say anything he adds, "Now that you're healed."
I can't very well refuse now. "Where to?"
"Follow me," he says.
But then he gets behind me.
I know where he wants me to go.
It's not to church.
The dawning of the new day follows us as we leave the ocean and walk into my old life that's my new life. It's dark before us and light behind. We seem to carry the light on our feet, one step at a time.
It isn't far to Bittersweet Lane. But it seems to take forever. I don't want to go there. And there's no place else on earth I want to go more.
The tiny house is dark. But there's a light in the lone kitchen window. We never had a light in the window. But we had lights everywhere else. Bethie never bothered turning them off. I don't like seeing things have changed. Even though I know things have changed completely.
The light isn't a light. It's Bethie. Her face. All I can see is her face in the window. It's the most beautiful face I've ever seen. It always was. But I never told her that. I'm not sure I ever knew it. I'm not sure I ever looked at her before, except to make her disappear. Inside me, I mean. I never looked at her apart from me.
Excerpted from The Last Day by James Landis. Copyright © 2009 J.D. Landis. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
i loved loved loved this book...i was drawn to it immediately at a book store,though i was not familiar with the book nor the author. And I learned that was because this book is a spiritual journey of Jesus and Warren...thru war, thru life. And it gave me hope that we are not just humans who eat,fight, buy, grieve,die but spiritual children of God and Jesus . Super book !
The Last Day by James Landis is the truly rare gem of a life-changing book. It's difficult to write a book in which a contemporary character meets Jesus without writing cheesy sentimentality or preachy discourses on faith. Landis' stunningly beautiful novel avoids all of those traps. Warren "War" Pease, a twenty-year-old soldier serving in Iraq meets up with Jesus, who calls himself Ray, on a mysterious visit to his hometown in New Hampshire. War meets up with Bethie, the mother of his daughter, Dodie, who he loved desperately, but could never let her into his heart; his father, a veterinarian with a unusual view of religion and guns; and his best friend Ryan, who has stepped into Bethie and Dodie's lives to fill the void he left when he went to Iraq. War jumps around in narration between his experiences in Baghdad and encountering the ones he left behind. Landis is a lyrical storyteller who has labored over each and every sentence, constructing them carefully for maximum power and emotion. His descriptions of the paranoia and accompanying recklessness of young soldiers are brilliant. War is a thoughtful young man who takes his job as sniper very seriously, and readers will find themselves pulled into his life. Ray and War's repartee keeps the book from becoming gloomy or dark. Ray keeps the reader's and War's focus right where it needs to be: on Him. In the beginning of the book, I was mentally fighting the obvious ending, but by the end, Landis' writing makes War's end a thing of beauty and grace. I know it's early in the year, but I am certain that this will make my top ten list of 2010.
I found The Last Day to initially be interesting but as I progressed further into it I found that I had already surmised the plot and it's ending. As a Vietnam Vet I found the story line to be dark and almost completely without humor, but the idea that Jesus would personally shepard War around to visit everyone important to him one last time was interesting. I could not in good faith recommend this book to any Vet (Vietnam, either Iraq Wars nor the Afganistan War).
I like the original voice of this author very very much. Especially appealing is the main character. I like to read first time writers occasionally as I am one myself. I hope this writer keeps on writing and publishing as I want to keep up with him.