[Excerpt from Speak Right On—Dred Scott, a novel]
The slave fort was a stoneblock, medieval structure with turrets and thick wooden gates secured by an iron beam that locked in place. An infernal clamor echoed along its chambers and walls, but the noise wasn't from the hundreds of prisoners—they huddled scared and silent in dungeon chambers. The racket came from the regiments of guards who drilled, caroused drunkenly, shouted orders, and cursed the sun and the slaves.
Two bored jailers slouched at their post, monitoring a long tunnel of cells. Beneath the din of regular slave business, they heard a cushioned, heavy vibration, a single thump. Chasing down the noise one said, "Sounds like a body hurled across a cell," then immediately realized there was no room in any of the pens to throw a body. The slave ships were overdue, the fort was packed beyond capacity. After inspecting several stalls that showed no sign of disturbance, they paused outside Nyota's cage, surprised by the peculiar arrangement of the slaves inside. In parade formation, the slaves stood shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall, ten rows deep. These were mostly women, the so-called Amazons. The watchmen had been warned to take special precautions with them.
Nyota stood alone, facing her brigade, her back to the guards and the metal bars. She was a rhinoceros of a woman: a hulking, muscular torso, stubby limbs, a wrestler's neck and shoulders. The guards shouted at her; she didn't turn. One poked a musket muzzle into her back, and she yodeled a single ululation, not in pain or in protest but in command. Her troops roared and stomped their feet; a tremor ran up from the packed-earth floor. Nyota whipped around, gracefully pivoting on one foot to face the rifles leveled at her. With another command, a hundred grimacing grotesques confronted the captors. Each slave's face contorted into bizarre leers and snarls; tongues slithered out from between bared teeth.
The guards fumbled backwards. Then, as if faced with nothing more than a child's prank, they returned to their post, laughing half-heartedly. They continued to ignore subsequent protests, believing the thumps and grunts were just slave antics. Not even the officers suspected the true nature of those military exercises, even when prisoners in other cages began adopting the ritual, even when it expanded to include the chanting: a monotonous, dull, low chorus answering the simple, contrapuntal rhythm of Nyota's calls, while the stomps beat furiously underneath the cyclic phrase.
For a week the feverish rite infected more and more slaves, but the symptoms of this strange frenzy were suffered by the guards. Many grew irritable, haunted by headaches and nightmares, yet they lived with it because nothing deterred the bizarre behavior. Not a dousing, that left the slaves to shiver through the night. Not withheld rations. Not beatings—though they were loath to give beatings; they understood the risk of a battle with such a mob.
Finally, one night when the temperature had dropped and the air was still, when the waters of the Endless Lake lay calm and the owl's cry carried for miles, in the midnight lull when the prison hubbub subsided, Nyota led the revolt. Thousands of captives within the fort began humming, following the rhythm she set with her hands. They punctuated the drone with stomps, and throughout the small hours their whomps and howls intensified.
Guards felt their blood seethe; sight flickered; ears popped. The earth began to tremble and roll. Dust cascaded from beams into chinks that blossomed in the hard, mud floor. Cups on tables and whips on the wall skittered and swayed. Mortar cracked and wood creaked. Insects and lizards scurried from crevices. Rats decamped and even some of the patrol deserted as the violence of the tremors rose with the volume of the chants.
Too late, an officer understood the noise was a weapon. He alerted the major that the entire prison could crumble if they didn't stop the infernal bawling and bumping. The major scoffed, until a door to a pen finally burst at the hinge from the buzzing pressure. He gave the command to use muskets, lashes, and ropes to subdue the rush of loosed slaves.