Incarnations of Burned Children

Wallace, David Foster

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Jun-30-2004
  • Last revised: Nov-23-2015


A pot of boiling water falls off the stove. A diaper-clad toddler screams. His mother cries hysterically. The little boy is standing barefoot in a puddle of steaming water on the kitchen floor. The father who was busy hanging a door rushes into the room and quickly assesses the situation. He places the child in the kitchen sink and runs cold water over the boy.The child's skin is scalded. The father swaddles him in a wet towel but the toddler shrieks as if he is still being burned. Suddenly both parents realize they haven't checked the diaper. It burns their hands when they take it off. The diaper is filled with hot water that has collected inside it. The parents wrap their son in gauze and handtowels. They take him to the emergency room where "the child had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead." (p. 116)


Readers may feel scorched by this brief unsettling tale, but they will have difficulty forgetting it. In slightly more than 1,100 words, the author creates a haunting scenario of a household accident that could happen anywhere. As if to underscore the universality of the tragedy, the characters are nameless and referred to only as the Daddy, the Mommy, and the child. There are no clues to the geographical setting either.Told from the father's perspective, the story is laden with parental guilt and excruciating pain--physical pain for the child, emotional pain for the father and mother. The story easily lends itself to discussions about negligence, blame, and remorse. The ending of the story allows for differing interpretations. Does the toddler die in the ER? Is the child somehow reincarnated? Or does the boy survive his severe burns and become transformed and disfigured by the accident?Everything sizzles in this tale including the language. Steam rises, vapor forms, and the stove's burner glows an eerie blue. On the way to the emergency room, the father "burned custom rubber all the way to town" (p. 116) driving his "hot truck." Consider this one stunning sentence as proof of the wisdom and clout of the story: "If you've never wept and want to, have a child." (p. 116)


This story originally appeared in Esquire.

Primary Source



Little, Brown

Place Published

New York & Boston



Page Count