The bonsai collector (a short story)

Photo by Scott Webb on

It’s already past eleven am, and the mall is a deserted ghost town. No one really comes here. With my earphones plugged in, I still hear the murmuring water from our ceramic fountains. I’m seated at the cash register, scrolling through the endless TikTok feed on my iPhone. Mom is spraying orchids with water, keeping them alive in their unnatural habitat.

            “Look how beautiful they are,” she beams.

            “Uh-huh,” I say, barely looking up.

A man walks in, donning his signature flat cap and trench coat. It’s him again. I call him the bonsai collector: the con artist who visits every Saturday bearing his wisdom. He is our regular customer, if you could even call him that. His form of payment: nonsense. Mom doesn’t see it that way. She clings to his every word as though they came from the great Buddha himself.

            “A fortune for a bonsai,” he says in Mandarin Chinese.

            Mom hands him a bonsai, eagerly waiting for pearls to spill out of his mouth. Beneath the cap was his bald egg-shaped head. He smiles, making me cringe. His teeth are charred, probably from smoking, and one was gold-plated. I bet the gold is fake. Everything about him reeks of fakeness.   

            “This week is a lucky week. You will bring more business in if you let in the wind from the East.” He reconfigures our table with the assortment of succulents and cacti, creating a pathway between myself and the plant fridge.

            “There, this is much better feng shui.”

            “Thank you so much, feng shui master.” She clasps her hands, forever indebted to him.   

            I take notes on my phone. Keeping tabs on his lies. Trying my best to translate his words into English. How many more bonsais are we going to give away? We are losing profits. These plants aren’t cheap.

            I no longer wear purple because of him. My teeth clench thinking about last week’s incident. Mom threw my beloved Kuromi graphic tee out the window. We fought, yelled, and screamed so loud that I was surprised the neighbours didn’t file a noise complaint. 

            “Why won’t you let me wear this? I bought it with my own money!” I yelled.

            It wasn’t just any shirt; it was a souvenir from last year’s anime convention I went to with my best friend, Tina.  

            “It’s your unlucky colour. Not good for you. Do you want to get into an accident like your dad?”

            My chest hurts. Dad passed away when I was five in a fatal factory accident. Why did she have to bring him into this?  

            “I don’t want to see you wear this colour again!”

            This business with the so-called feng shui master started after Mom lost thousands of dollars through a phishing scam on the Internet. She thought she was buying more supplies for our shop but transferred the money elsewhere.

            “It’s because of our bad fortune,” she said. “We must have better feng shui. Improve our luck.”

            That’s when she hired the man. He told us we lost the money because Mom kept our Buddha statue in our open cabinet above the stove.

            “It’s like you’re lighting up Buddha himself,” he explained. “You have angered the gods, and that was your punishment.”

            That explains everything. If Dad was still here, he would surely take my side and wouldn’t fall for these superstitions.

            We couldn’t afford his high rates. As a compromise, we gave him a bonsai for his weekly visits. First, he’d ask about our birthdays, names, and furniture arrangement. Then he tells our Chinese horoscope and his assessment of what’s out of balance in our lives based on his “mathematical” calculations.  

            “This is a good investment,” Mom would justify whenever I confronted her about the bonsais we were losing. “If we improve our feng shui, we will have better fortune.”

            I can never get through to Mom. So I will have to deal with matters on my own.


After work, I track the man online. It is easy to find him with his name and keyword, “feng shui practitioner.” He has a sketchy website reminiscent of the early 2000s with bright fonts poorly contrasted against a neon green background. On his page, he talks about his practice and how he’s been doing this since the eighties. I roll my eyes, then make several fake Google accounts so I can write bad reviews on his search results page. I do the same for Facebook.

            I write about how he ripped customers off, giving them losing lottery numbers or failing to make predictions like the gender of their child. Sometimes, his instructions would lead to even more misfortune. One review mentioned catching the flu after being told to remove the “unlucky” heater. Obviously, these are made up. I wouldn’t dare mention anything that’d lead to me. I smirk after hitting each submit button. Justice is served.

            It’s later in the evening. I’m surprised to see that he has responded to each review with the same message:

            I am reporting you. Nothing you say is true. You will have bad karma for your lying tongue. 

            It was dumb of me to publish my review on the same day. Of course, it looks fake. I wince, looking at the irony of my words. I’m the liar this time, even if it’s for a good cause.

            The reviews get removed the next day.


It’s Saturday again. The bonsai collector is back. I hide behind the counter, pretending I’m not there, hoping he wouldn’t suspect it was me who wrote those reviews. Instead, he takes a bonsai and utters his usual nonsense; Mom eats his every word, then he leaves. I make another note of his lies.


I see Tina at our usual spot in the cafeteria. Tina, my bestie since middle grade, is outspoken and bold. Unlike me, she wouldn’t hide behind an anonymous profile to confront someone. She’s a debate club member, loves a good argument, and has recently become a health nut. I tell her everything about the bonsai collector and my feeble attempt at ruining his business.

            “He’s basically robbing us!” I complain.

            “You should speak with his customers, convince them what a fraud he is,” she says, taking a bite out of her nasty protein bar.

            I’ve tried these before. It tastes like tree bark. Tina has been trying to convert everyone to eating better.

            “You are what you eat,” she’d say.

            If what she said was true, I’d be a plain ham sandwich: mediocre, deprived, and bare. It’s cheap to buy a loaf of bread and fill it with processed sandwich meat. But I’m sure I’m missing other vital nutrients. Tina is always concerned and looking out for me. The same could be said for her new boyfriend in the tenth grade.

            “He needs help,” she’d say.

            Her boyfriend eats greasy food mostly, and Tina worries that he’ll become diabetic before he reaches his twenties.

            “Uh-huh,” I’d say whenever she complains about his diet.

            I want to tell her it’s hard imagining him eating anything that isn’t greasy. He loves his greasy food. But telling Tina would lead to a long tirade about how fast food is killing us.

            Now I get it. Just like me, she wants to make things better. I need to help Mom. She’s uneducated. It’s easier to exploit her that way.


Tina helps me devise a plan after school. Mom thinks I’m at her place working on a “school project.” I always need a good reason for returning home late. We discover through the ’s man’s website that he hosts weekly sessions at a local community center. This is where he finds vulnerable people and cheats them for their money.   

            “We’ll speak to each prospective person, ask them what they’re dealing with, and convince them there’s a better way.” She adds, “then we’ll crush his business.”

            “No, I can’t do that,” I say.

            “Why not?”

            “He’ll see me.”

            Tina pats my arm, reassuring me.

            “You can do this.”

            I shake my head. Not only am I shy, but I’m also not as persuasive as Tina.

            “Fine, I’ll do the talking. But you’re coming with me.”

            I accept her compromise. It’s only fair for me to show up. Wouldn’t want Tina to do this all alone.


We bike to the center after school one day. Through the window, we see him giving away Mom’s bonsais. Then, one by one, a customer comes up to him and is gifted the miracle plant. They look so happy. It sickens my stomach. We have an abundance of plants at our shop, and none of them have granted us our miracle. If we were so fortunate, I wouldn’t eat ham wedged between bread slices each day.

            Tina and I approach a woman leaving the center. The woman has a walking cane and can barely carry her bonsai in her other arm. Tina offers to help.  

            “Thank you, young one,” the woman says in Mandarin Chinese. Tina is nearly fluent in the language. She asks the woman about the feng shui master and her reasons for her visit. The woman liked the way Tina addressed her elderly with respect. She relishes our attention.

            “My grandchildren no longer speak to me. Why is that? Is it because of my bad karma?” There is despair in her voice.

            “No,” says Tina, holding the woman’s hand.

            Tina tells her that life is complex and that karma can’t explain everything.

            “You mustn’t trust the feng shui master. He’s taking advantage of you.”

            The woman shakes her head.

            “I have to try, at least.”

            It is no use; the woman, like my mom, is set in her beliefs.

            We approach other people leaving the feng shui session. Tina tells them he’s a fraud and that my mom has been duped. Some scoff at us, questioning how two young women would know any better. Others laugh dismissively. Only one person acknowledges that Tina’s points are valid.

            “You’re smart,” he says. “I like the way you think.”

            “At least there’s one reasonable person out there. Some of my faith in humanity has been restored,” Tina says.

            The sun has set, and we’re depleted and frustrated.

            “Arguing in debate club is a lot simpler,” says Tina. “In debate club, people listen to reason. If my argument has merit, then I win. Why is it so hard to convince randos on the street?”

            I sigh. If only people were rational beings, people like the feng shui master wouldn’t exist.

            “It’s hard to argue with stupid,” I say.

            “Agreed,” Tina says.


Tina is a train wreck today. We’re in the girl’s bathroom. Her eyes are red and puffy. I’m trying my best to console her. 

            “Max broke up with me,” she says, tears streaming down her cheeks, “he says I’m too much for him, that he needs a break. Can you believe that?”

            “No,” I lied, even though I saw that coming. Her boyfriend is a chill dude who doesn’t like being constantly told what’s right or wrong.

            “You tried your best,” I say. “He’s missing out on someone special.” That part is true.

            I hug Tina. Tina can be overbearing sometimes, but she is a loyal friend and always has my back. I’m lucky to have her.


The shop is closing, and he hasn’t shown up—until now. I’m counting cash in our cash drawer and overhear him talking with Mom.

            “Your daughter showed up at my practice two days ago, telling all my clients that feng shui is bad,” he says.

            The anger in his voice makes my heart pound.

            “No, she couldn’t have. She was studying at her friend’s place,” Mom says.

            “Her friend? The tall one with the pink hair and butterfly tattoo? She was there, too.”

            I’m busted. Not many people fit that description.

            “The gods will punish them for what they did.”  

            Mom gasps as if she’d seen a ghost.

            “What do I do?”

            “Pray for their souls.”

            The man takes a bonsai and leaves.


Mom is furious. I’m afraid she’ll get a stroke. Finally, we’re at home after an eerily silent drive back.

            “You will be punished for lying!” she shouts in Mandarin. Everything is tenfold scarier in her native tongue.

            A few months ago, I would’ve shouted back, telling her he’s a con man, the ultimate liar, but I’m exhausted. She had heard me say it hundreds of times before. I no longer want to give more energy than I have.

            “Sorry” is all I can muster.


            “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you where I was going. I’m sorry you’re upset,” I say, my voice firm. But I’m not sorry for all the times I tried to speak my truth. I’m tired of us having to convince each other who’s right or wrong. Look where that got Tina.

            “You disrespectful child,” she scolds. “I don’t want you in my house. Get out!”

            Mom’s face is burning red. I can’t tell if she’s serious or not.

            “Now!” she repeats.

            I scramble for my belongings and leave. Then, I call Tina.


Mom doesn’t want to see me. I don’t want to see her either. I’m spending the night at Tina’s place. I don’t know if I’ll ever return.



I am a tug-of-war rope pulled between guilt and freedom. Which side is winning?

            “It’s okay,” Tina says. “I’m on your side.”

            Sometimes, that’s all I needed to hear.


I’m back home, slurping noodles with Mom in painful silence. Tina’s family called Mom a week after I was banished; they couldn’t keep me around anymore. Mom needs me anyways. Someone must look after the shop.


Months have passed. I still keep tabs on the bonsai collector. But his visits have become less frequent. Eventually, he stopped showing up entirely.

            “Why has he stopped visiting?” I ask. It’s evening, and we’re eating rice cakes for dinner.

            “I don’t need him anymore,” Mom says.

            I nearly choke on my food. Has Mom changed? Does she finally realize he’s a fraud? My heart lifts.


            “Yes. He’s too expensive.”

            Mom grins and then shows me something on her iPhone.

            “Look, I have this app. It can tell me if today a lucky day is or not.”

            My bubble bursts. No, she hasn’t changed. I sigh. Mom looks so joyful, beaming with pride that she could get her fortune told for practically free. At least she’s happy, and I no longer see the man taking our bonsais.  

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