18
$\begingroup$

Everyone in my community is collapsing to the ground and dying painfully. My husband, he is one of the few remaining men to bury the dead and I worry that soon I'll be left alone.

How do I ensure that our son and daughter survive?

We don't know where to go and if this black death is happening in the rest of the world.

Question: A woman in an alternate reality on a time similar to the early first centuries of our real life calendar wants her two teenage children to survive a deadly pestilence which is covering the entire world. The world is fictional and is made of only one ring shaped continent with a myriad of peninsulas and inside of it there's an ocean with no isles.

The plague is affecting the entire world, but the woman does not know that. Some people are naturally immune to this plague, but neither she nor her children are, and she doesn't know that by coincidence her entire community is not immune.

So how do they survive when they don't know where to escape or where to go, given that they are still not infected, for now.

The father didn't sleep in the same house as his family since the day he first started burying the never ending dead and he is now dying alone and hiding himself so that no one would find his corpse and get infected.

Why? I need those two people to live to tell the tale. They are two important characters which need to survive this plague at least until they become elderly.

For this reason the two teens must survive in world where almost everyone is dying without knowing where it's safe to go. Therefore they only have their intuition to save them.

The plague is copy/pasted from our real world black death where 2 out of 3 people die. It acts and spreads in the same manner.

The question is not how two characters get from a plot point A to plot point B but how can they even manage to survive before their journey to where point B begins.

There is a city, Altheia where people are not affected by this plague, but the characters in question have no idea about this city existing.

$\endgroup$
  • 47
    $\begingroup$ If 2/3 of all people die, that's a chance of 1/9 of son and daughter surviving. 1/27 for son, daughter, and mother. Perfectly acceptable within a normal suspension of disbelief. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed May 15 at 23:26
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ The black plague was spread by human fleas and aerosols. So you have to keep them completely away from humans. Rats are okay. So disguise them as lepers. No one will come close to them. archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/… $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme the Second May 16 at 1:06
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ literally just quarantine them till its over like what happen now (so just handwave they have enough preserve food to last the plague), and thats how the people in that time deal with this, there some that task to check the house and give mark if that house get infected to let the the grave taker or undertaker do his task. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun May 16 at 10:05
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ You missed the point. Which is that the numbers are good enough you do not actually need to worry whether the "solution" works, you can just be lucky. Instead you should focus on what the people would actually do, which is isolation. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi May 16 at 13:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Halfthawed And survival odds aren't independent. If one family member survives, others are more likely to because of shared genetics and circumstances. $\endgroup$ – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- May 16 at 22:31

16 Answers 16

49
$\begingroup$

The Black Death - bubonic plague - has a mortality rate of 50-70%, so even with no other measures there's a pretty good chance of any two people surviving at random (about 25% if you take the lower end).

However, population-wide statistics are misleading. The mortality rate will be very much lower for fit, healthy people who are well-fed and have no underlying health conditions. So the survival rate for your two could be very much higher.

Also, genetics come into it: if your family has higher natural resistance than both, then both people will benefit.

Finally, let's cheat. Their father is a gravedigger, so they have received inoculating doses of a wide variety of conditions which have a synergistic effect of boosting their immune systems against this particular pathogen, so they suffer no more than a minor sniffle and are good for the next generation.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ That was pretty much my first reaction when I saw the question. "Having a certain pair of characters survive the Black Death, so that the plot can continue moving forward, does not automatically require that they never became infected with it in the first place." They could survive by luck as much as anything else, and then grow elderly to someday tell the tale to their grandchildren. (Depending upon whether or not the idea of "our mother tried to protect us, but it didn't work, and we survived because we were young and strong and lucky" really fits with Kyu's other plans.) $\endgroup$ – Lorendiac May 16 at 17:33
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Exactly. Samuel Pepys lived through the plague, and his diary documents daily life very accurately. Whilst a lot of people did die, clearly Pepys survived, as did most of his household. $\endgroup$ – Graham May 17 at 12:52
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ Also "I need those two people to live to tell the tale" is a perfect example of survivorship bias - the tale is told because those two lived, not the other way round, and if they had died it would have been told by two others. $\endgroup$ – Bergi May 18 at 13:24
36
$\begingroup$

Black plague (and hopefully any disease which closely copies it) is carried by fleas. Fleas hate citrus fruit, especially lemons. The woman and her husband own the only citrus grove near the town and normally make their living selling lemons.
So their home and grove would be a natural safe zone from black plague. If only her husband hadn't joined the death teams, he would have survived too.

Bonus Points : In addition to being copper-rich, Altheia is also the empire's primary source of citrus fruits. The main character's distant ancestors were from Altheia which is how she ended up with the family citrus grove in the first place.

If you don't like citrus, there are a number of other natural flea control methods which would serve. Here is an article on the subject.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ This is clever in a way but, as presented, would work as well as drinking vodka to cure coronavirus. It's not nearly enough to live somewhat near citrus trees and probably wouldn't even work if they sometimes squeezed the juice onto themselves. They'd need to be heavily involved in some industrial-level extract production that saturated the workshop with citrus everywhere... and they'd still be able to pick it up if they ever left. $\endgroup$ – lly May 16 at 14:03
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @lly well then, I'm stocking up vodka. Think two bottles would be enough for a family of two? Also, does flavor matter? $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak May 16 at 18:20
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Schrodinger'sStat Well, if they were in some environment completely saturated with citrus, it would work but they'd need to stay there or be covered with it. All in all, I think sulfur would work better for this idea since the dust and smell would hang around longer and there's no historic industry that would've involved so much citrus (let alone ones as cool as alchemy). If OP really prefers this idea, though, it is a fictional world. S/he could always have some religious obligation to soak and bathe clothes in lemon juice once a day or sth. :shrug: $\endgroup$ – lly May 17 at 3:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak, if you missed the irony, the vodka would only work if it was 160 proof and injested via the respiratory tract several times a day. So... good luck with that. $\endgroup$ – lly May 17 at 3:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @CJDennis Well many people during the Black Plague thought that disease was carried by bad smelling air, so they could regularly apply citrus oil to ward that off and just accidentally be doing something that worked $\endgroup$ – Kevin Wells May 18 at 22:16
15
$\begingroup$

They live in the trees.

enter image description here

She knows that the Death can jump from person to person. And she knows that even without the Death, people have become dangerous. Even among the uninfected, people are desperate and some are insane. Before he went away her husband told her some of the things he saw in the houses of the dead, and would not tell her about some others.

She goes to the forest, and she goes up. When she was a child her mother showed her secret places high in the trees, and now she brings her own children to the refuges she once knew.

The three of them live quietly, high above the ground. Beech and oak are generous with their gifts, and as a child the woman learned other things that the forest offers to eat. People do not come there. Nor do rats, or fleas. And from their vantagepoint the family is witness to mysterious, terrible and beautiful things in the forest around them and on the ground below.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Quite interesting. How do they handle their excrements and trash, without making clear they're around? I guess that if I saw a pile of trash near a tree, I would suspect. $\endgroup$ – Chococroc May 16 at 9:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Chooocroc - I am sure there is a name for people who live in a tree and leave a pile of crap and empty beer bottles below. These folks don't make a lot of trash, and what they do they bury. I think smoke would be the biggest problem. $\endgroup$ – Willk May 16 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ That doesn't work at all. Rats absolutely can and do climb trees. It works the same way it does for squirrels. Beyond which, rats can spread the fleas to other tree-dwelling vermin as well. $\endgroup$ – lly May 16 at 13:58
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @Ily, Ily,... Ily. And a downvote even! Black rats climb everything, but in Europe they are associated with humanity. They do not go into forests; certainly not an old growth Black Forest. If you don't believe me, take it from the BBC. bbc.com/news/science-environment-35461412 $\endgroup$ – Willk May 16 at 14:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I actually really enjoy this setup. Leaves large swaths of possible story to tell. $\endgroup$ – avgvstvs May 16 at 16:27
13
$\begingroup$

One solution is to have them come very, very close to death, but then just barely pull through. It's easier to believe "these two people almost died of the plague" than "these two people were immune to the plague" or "these two people never got the plague". Sometimes people do simply recover from even the worst conditions.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ While it'd be good for storytelling purposes, considering the impact of the disease on the overall population and their lack of immune memory to deal with the disease, I'd find it highly unlikely that they'd be able to make a full recovery from a pathogen after being weakened to the point of being at the brink of death $\endgroup$ – ProjectApex May 16 at 18:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @ProjectApex Indeed, it's unlikely that we could select two people before the plague began, and hope that they survived. But we might not be doing that; we might be writing the story about two people who did survive. For that to happen, all you need is for some pair of people to have survived. $\endgroup$ – Patrick Stevens May 16 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ @ProjectApex The OP said that it kills about 2/3rds of those infected, so it really isn't unlikely that a brother and sister could survive even if they both got sick. Given a large population a good number of people will survive by chance or by being somewhat more resilient even if they lack natural immunity $\endgroup$ – Kevin Wells May 18 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ @KevinWells 2/3 death rate is 1/3 survival rate. For both to survive, it's 1/9 or ~11%. Not inconceivable. $\endgroup$ – CJ Dennis May 18 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Kevin Wells don't get me wrong, I do think it'd make the story interesting and that it's no at all a stretch. My main qualm is simply regarding the "very, very close to death" bit. Although intriguing, in such a scenario with lack of medical assistance, someone that weak and with an already overexerted immune system, I find it highly unlikely that anyone would be able to pull it off, especially in a medieval environment with so many other opportunistic pathogens that still bother us today. I'd only suggest them to be a little more than a millimeter away from the alluring embrace of death. $\endgroup$ – ProjectApex May 18 at 22:39
12
$\begingroup$

The mother is a cat hoarder. She adores cats, and cannot have too many of them. Any rat looking for living quarters takes one sniff near her house and decides it would not make a good home.

The cats are kept mainly indoors, well fed, and groomed regularly. She does not like them getting fleas. If she sees fleas on a cat she combs it thoroughly. She insists everyone living in the house must bathe and wash their clothes regularly.

The resulting low exposure to fleas greatly reduces the risk of the children being bitten by infected fleas.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Rodents! I congratulate you on thinking of it first. The same idea occurred to me. Although since this is a fantasy world their version of the cat is much more efficient & ruthless predator of rats. Since the principal vector of the black death was the rate flea, then anything that could keep down rats would protect humans in the vicinity of being infected. Plus one, & deservedly so. $\endgroup$ – a4android May 18 at 13:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Don't keep the cats indoors and don't keep them well fed. That would make them soft. Any decent street rat is going to eat an indoors-only cat for lunch. The cats need to be street wise and foraging for at least part of their diet. Make this woman cat-friendly. She can't afford to feed them entirely, but they hang around because her house is a safe refuge and a good fall back in lean times. $\endgroup$ – Adam Miller May 18 at 13:48
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @AdamMiller I've heard two competing theories from people who need barn cats to keep rats from hay and grain. One is that a half-starved cat will hunt more. The other is that most cats have a very strong hunting drive, and will hunt without needing food. A fit, healthy, well-fed cat will be more successful. For this question, I need the cats to have time and energy for thorough grooming, so more indoor and well fed. The cats do not have to kill a lot of rats, just make their home unattractive. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan May 18 at 15:50
8
$\begingroup$

Cosplay the doctors

enter image description here

As the image shows, while some of their measures and habits were simply useless, some of their decisions in what to wear and what to do were correct. Their uniforms, while not perfect, did provide them with decent protection both against the sick patients' bodily fluids and against the fleas which transmitted the disease. To maximize their chances, steal this look (minus the mask and hat, those are important in identifying the real doctors, especially the hats, and might cause you trouble to wear), making sure to cover as much of their bodies as possible with protective clothing, and cover everything with some leather cloak or other garment that hides the doctor outfit as to not raise suspicion. It won't 100% guarantee that they'll reach the destination, but it sure will give them an edge when it comes to avoid contamination by fleas and fluids alike.

Now that is just precautions and safety measures to increase their chances,but it won't be enough. The kids must watch out not to raise suspicion and keep away from urban centers, in order to avoid both the agglomeration with potential infected and the unsanitary environments which cities were. They also must watch out what they eat and drink, avoiding as much as possible dubious sources along their path.

So summing up:

  • watch out for what you eat and drink
  • copy the doctors'uniforms, they're doing it right (kinda)
  • stay as far away from cities, villages and people as a whole as possible.
  • stop as little as possible on your journey, so long as you don't violate the previous recommendations. The sooner you arrive, the better, but don't go skipping too many nights, as lack of sleep will affect your immunity.
  • pray that these measures are enough and may the Lord guide you through your journey.
| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
6
$\begingroup$

Obviously if your character has no idea where to go, the only answer she'll be able to manage will be "not here" and "away from people". As it happens, historically, quarantining in the countryside is exactly what the wealthy did and it sometimes worked. You can check out footnote-heavy copies of Boccaccio's Decameron for details.

Really, though, if they weren't wealthy enough to hole up at a country estate and send servants to pick up supplies, they'd be moving from place to place and trying to pick up info on rumors. There would doubtless be many floating around, some nonsense, some genuine information, some traps laid by bandits and slavers.

Some states would be largely immune through having quickly quarantined upon trusted reports arriving of the mess elsewhere. Any place successful, though, would have policies in place precisely to keep refugees like your characters from being able to come in.

Assuming that your disease uses the same mechanism as the Black Death, fleas can't physically handle sulfur. If they were in a highly sulfur-rich environment like a mine or volcano they'd be fine aside from the molten rock. Sulfur was also used since antiquity by some farmers as an insecticide and by some textile workers in dyeing and finishing processes. Any wouldbe alchemists or gunners would also hoard the stuff. Your characters could end up in one of those trades, with some of those workers, or (safest and most sensible) hiding in the hideously stinky supply rooms and warehouses that store the stuff. They could go there just to avoid other people in the most natural way possible (find somewhere nonharmful that is still so awful no one else would come near) and end up the better for it.

You can always change the mechanism for your disease, though. Person-to-person transmission makes quarantine/hiding the obvious solution. You could come up with specific virus qualities that they wouldn't understand but that would match wherever you need them to be as part of your story, though. Maybe high altitude or high humidity or complete aridity or high salt concentrations could neutralize whatever the illness happens to be. Etc.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
5
$\begingroup$

The disease has an age-specific mortality rate which increase kids' survival chances

If you haven't already written a lot about your infectious disease already, you might consider to make it more dangerous and lethal for the adult people, especially the age cohort which already has teenage children.

Many viral infections are much more mild for the kids, the best-known example being chickenpox, but also COVID-19 now, and although real-life plague didn't (and doesn't) have such a property, you can make up a fictional disease which is lethal for a small fraction of preadolescents (a fraction which is negligible in the context of medieval children mortalities), a larger fraction of teenagers, and then its danger increases with age. In such a case the death of the father and survival of the children will be perfectly natural.

You will have to design symptoms different from the plague for your disease though! Another possible disadvantage is that I won't expect a viral disease like that to have a CFR as high as the plague (~30—50%) but rather more like Spanish flu (~10%).

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
5
$\begingroup$

Your characters live in a sparsely populated area.

  • The land is sparsely populated, most live on subsistence farming, there is less need for widespread trade
  • Settlements are far apart, thus any infected traveller is likely to become sick during travel, hence they die on their way, or shelter in monasteries until they are fit again.

There's a question over a history.se, which asks the question why Poland was pretty much spared

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

I liked the citrus farming answer, but perhaps extend it a bit. Make citrus juice in large quantities by squishing it with their feet, thereby getting it all over themselves on a regular basis. If people think it is a cure to the plague, there might be high demand for it, therefore they would be making it regularly. Use citrus candles regularly because they like the scent, thereby helping keep the flees out of the home.

Some feral cats on their farm could hunt the rats down. Of course, cats carry flees too, but there would be fewer, and it would be easier to keep them out of the house.

Copper is anti-bacterial. Perhaps they can have a side business of copper or bronze smithing? I read an article recently that coppersmiths died in far fewer numbers during the plague than the rest of the population. Sorry, I could't find the article in my 5 minutes of searching. I think it had to do with them breathing in copper dust on a regular basis.

The farm is naturally "socially distant". The family doesn't necessarily need to interact with many people, other than to get food and supplies. They can use a middle-man who sells their products for them, and perhaps brings them their supplies, thereby limiting exposure even more. Of course, this person might be a carrier. People understood that being close to sick people made it more likely for them to get sick, so the seller might wear a mask (they understood this principle as well) and possibly pickup/dropoff at a distance.

Also, the death rate of the plague was much higher in Southern Europe, which are the numbers you usually see (2/3rds of the population). In Northern Europe, the percentages were much lower. I don't recall if this was due to colder climate or population density. If colder climate, I don't recall if it was because the plague didn't transmit as easily, or if people just naturally don't get as close to one another and wear more clothes (it's been well over 20 years since my Western Civilization courses in college). Of course, colder temperature would probably preclude a citrus farm.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Start with more

People didn't have two kids and raise them to adulthood in that period, they often had as many as they could in the hope that some survived to adulthood. Surviving childhood was a major life achievement.

If you want two characters to survive the plague, start with a whole family, six to ten people, parents and children, kill all but the two you want.

Perhaps that's not the story you want to write, but it'll bring home how deadly your plague is. You've already killed the father, and presumably the mother will go soon, add a couple more kids and you've hit average. Only one or two surviving from a family is reasonable and nobody will question it.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

The Plague was spread by fleas. So make your people very clean and antisocial.

This actually happened in history, there was a religious group whose customs involved washing a lot, and they survived better.

Of course the neighbours got suspicious and behaved like ignorant people, but you can find a way to handle that...

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Do you need these two specific people to survive, or do you just need two people who did survive?

What I mean is, out of a world with many families, by pure chance there will be some families where you have two survivors that match your criteria. You can just tell the tale from their perspective.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Make It Interesting

How do they survive? Well, as many of the people above have said, they could just randomly survive or come really close. to death, but since we're discussing Worldbuilding, for some kind of media, it would make sense to make it interesting.

I'm not necessarily saying that the others' answers are wrong, but the audience doesn't want to hear how they randomly survived. No, they want to hear something thrilling, something interesting. So you can go about this two ways:

1. Quarantine In The Wild

You can make the main characters camp out in the wilderness, away from other people, struggling to survive. Narrate their struggles, then after a few weeks, have some stranger affected with the Black Death approach them, of course, they will remain up in their base while he mumbles about some place called Altheia, he will tell them its location and ask them to help him. The brother will hesitate, but the sister will tell him to run, and when his back is turned, she will shoot him with her bow. Then, then the two will journey to Altheia and will settle there.

2. Wandering

Have the siblings wander to the north, based on rumors of a safe haven that they heard about around town, finding shelters and food wherever they can find it, barely surviving on what they find. Eventually, the two are about to starve when they reach an inn, they don't want to enter, but they have to. There, they find that they are in the outskirts of Orotheia (change the name to whatever you wish), about 12 miles from Altheia. The siblings join a caravan of Altheian traders heading back to Altheia. However, their navigator gets killed by a bear, so they accidentally wander into the part of Altheia where the infected. are held. They come under attack. The rest of the caravan is infected and killed, but the siblings escaped just before the caravan came under attack. They silently move through the forest, eventually, they manage to reach Amaltheia and live to tell the tale.

This theory is similar to everything else and has a similar result, but it's likely more appealing and interesting to read/watch/view, which makes the entire thing all. the more interesting and enjoyable.

Hope this helps!

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

The mother gives the children in adoption to a noble person who lost their own children.

The noble would take extra care of the children by nourrishing them, clothing them and attending to their hygiene and even without the exact knowledge of preventive measures incidentally avoiding the tragedy repetition.

To intensife the chances you might want to use the fact that according to a recent study the primer strain of the plague was likely transmitted by food and not fleas during a time similar to that in your story (so clean and fresh food would be enough to keep the children safe).

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Put all the chances on their side

Many answers are good here, so you could combine them for your characters.

For instance:

  • From david-hambling answer: Their family has a good genome for resisting the plague, and the father was a gravedigger that helped boost their immune system.
  • From Henry Taylor answer: They enjoy citrus.
  • From Brian answer: the cats
  • Inspired by RedSonja answer: Their religion has a strict standard about washing hand and mouth before eating. It is possible that is one of the cause, among other factors, that jews were a bit spared during the black plague.
  • From aim92 answer: They're young and healthy in the first place.
  • Also a recurrent topic among answers is social distancing.

Putting it all together

So build characters that group some of these characteristics. For instance:

Young person, working in a small group as a sentinel at an outpost for extensive periods of time. To get to the outpost, there is a longer than incubation time travel from the dispatch center. There are cats near the outpost.

The outpost tower is located in an area with lots of citrus. When the characters travels, he/she always take some citrus from the outpost in its bag. His/her rank in the army is provided with individual room and a (big) horse, so that he/she is sitting well above the crowd in denser areas.

Father was a gravedigger for the army, which kept them well fed. Due to its job making his hands particularly dirty, the father installed a small basin outside the family house to be able to wash his hands and face when coming back from work just in time to eat. So the kids naturally imitated it and kept washing hands and face before eating in their adult life.

The character has a birth mark on the face, lots of people will keep distances by reflex. Sometimes, to hide it, the character wears a cloth mask.

But

Do not explain that any of these saved the life of your characters. A careful reader will understand that the characters did survive because of a combination of factors. On the other hand, from the characters point of view, it will not be possible to understand why they were spared. It should be self-explanatory for the reader, not for the characters.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy