The thing had raged all day. It had spat and clawed at us as we tried to slow its advance.
We took the food from its intended path, but it jumped, climbed and found food high up where we could not go.
By the end of the afternoon it had faltered, yet continued to gorge. Then it fell to digesting, almost motionless. If we approached, it took impatient swipes, reminding us that we were tiny. Occasionally it hurled a branch or hissed.
Then, exhausted, flaccid, it drifted into a kind of sleep. No, not sleep, or even rest, but an angry catatonia. Its squinting orange eyes promised madder rampage, when it had found breath again.
I needed to get round it on foot, somehow. If I had told anyone, they would have called me mad; but I knew, from experience, that the thing would be drowsy, not able to move much by the early hours. It was a risk, but surely not much of a risk. There was more terror than danger.
Striding out at first light, I could smell it before I could see it. There was a taste of it on the air, if I opened my mouth. It was a tarry, turpentine, hellish taste.
I drew near. Its seething black bulk was immobile. The many irregular eyes had narrowed to blinking points.
I drew nearer still.
It could neither claw nor roar now. There were just sobbing and crackling sounds, and the odd hiss. Those scattered eyes fixed me, neither hostile nor curious. Whatever it had been, whatever it would become within hours, it was now a splendid and strange thing.
I needed to pass, yet wanted to linger. Never had I been so close to so much life and strength in a single thing. What had been its killing exhalation was now a swamping radiance, passing not just around but through me.
How to explain? It was a warm tide. It was the old hermit’s vision of grace.
The dragon was beautiful.
I passed on, got where I needed to go.
By mid-morning, the worst had happened. The wind had swung to the west and got up speed.
The Big Burn spread across the whole region, taking farms, even some homes on the fringe of town. Cattle were incinerated. A firefighter nearly lost his life when a towering Flooded Gum threw a branch.
Thousands of acres were scorched, many destroyed. The tragedy was all over the news.
How could I explain to anyone, even to myself, that I had been its friend?
I had felt its grace, loved the monster.