The story of the Spanish conquest is true but incredible. That Tenochtitlan was taken, that Cortes marched from Mexico to Honduras, that Alvarado broke the power of the Quiches and Cakchiquels—these are facts, but facts so immoderately unlikely that I have never been able to believe them except on authority; reason and imagination withheld their assent. At Panajachel, I made an acquaintance who convinced me, for the first time, that everything in Prescott and Bernal Diaz had really happened. He was an old Spaniard who lived with an Indian wife and their family in a large rambling house by the lake, making his living as a taxidermist and dresser of skins. He was wonderfully expert at his job and had a firsthand knowledge of the birds, mammals and reptiles of the country. But it was not what he did or said that interested me most; it was what he was. As I watched him moving about the terrace of his house, a gaunt, bony figure, but active and powerful, his black beard aggressive in the wind, his nose like an eagle’s, his eyes glittering, restless and fierce, I suddenly understood the how and the why of the Spanish conquest. The strength of the Indians is a strength of resistance, of passivity. Matched against these eager, violently active creatures from across the sea, they had no chance—no more chance than a rock against a sledge hammer. True, the Indian rock was a very large one, but the hammer, though small, was wielded with terrific force. Under its quick reiterated blows, the strangely sculptured monolith of American civilization broke into fragments. The bits are still there, indestructible, and perhaps some day they may be fused together again into a shapely whole; meanwhile they merely testify, in their scattered nullity, to the amazing force behind the Spanish hammer.
The old taxidermist went into the house and returned a moment later with a large bucket full of a glutinous and stinking liquid.
“Look here,” he said; and he drew out of this disgusting soup yards and yards of an enormous snakeskin. “Que bonito!” he kept repeating, as he smoothed it out. “Like silk. Nobody here knows how to tan a snakeskin as well as I.”
I nodded and made the appropriate noises. But it was not at the skin that I was looking; it was at the old man’s hands. They were big hands, with fingers long, but square-tipped; hands that moved with a deft power, that reached out and closed with a quick, unhesitating rapacity; the hands of a conquistador.
He asked too much for the skin he finally sold us; but I did not grudge the money; for, along with two yards of beautiful serpent’s leather, I had bought the key to Spanish-American history, and to me that was worth several times the extra dollar I had paid for my python.