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If, like me, you avoid the depressing news in the morning paper by going immediately to the comics and the puzzles, you probably have run across the advice columns in that neighborhood.

There’s the Bridge column for the addicted, and Ask Amy for the bewildered.  And then there’s the Horoscope.  True, it preys on the weak and gullible, but its tenor is usually positive and its guidance inoffensive.

So, I was startled a few weeks ago when a very different horoscope showed up, speaking, not to those born under the signs of the zodiac, but to the signs themselves:

images-1Aquarius, Gemini, Libra:  You are Air.  You are essential to life, but, as you slowly accumulate poisons, you have become the innocent bearer of evil.  The blackened skies of New Delhi and Beijing, the ozone that hangs ominously over Denver and Los Angeles, are not your fault.  And you can comfort yourself with the thought that the ills you bear may help rid the earth of those responsible.  Perhaps, then, the bluebird and the chickadee, if they survive, may sing without coughing, with none but themselves to hear.

Pisces, Cancer, Scorpio:  You are Water.  You, too, are essential to life and unfairly criticized for being the distant origin of the life-form called “human” and, now, for being their ultimate garbage dump.  Scornful nicknames like “The Sea of Syringes” and “The Bay of Bags” are especially unfair.  But you needn’t get angry.  You will get even, as you watch New York City and Miami slip beneath your waves.

Aries, Leo, Sagittarius:  You Are Fire.  You are what turns iron into automobiles and petroleum into their toxic fumes.  Nonetheless, you have begun to right the balance with wildfires that are devouring more and more of the land that humans expropriate and misuse.  Do not fear criticism.  Their reflexive blame-game rebounds on themselves: “They’re the ones who started it.”

Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn:  You are Earth.  Your bounty has allowed life to flourish.  LikeUnknown-1 Air, Water, and Fire, you have facilitated the explosion of humans.  In this, you are perhaps the most innocent since you can produce little without the intervention of your companions in the zodiac.  They will determine.  Of course, you do have earthquake and volcano … just sayin’…

I figured it was all a prank — deadly serious in its intent, but still a prank.  And, indeed, the following morning’s paper carried a front-page apology and commitment to a thorough investigation.

Within two days, it had the answer.  No hacking had been involved.  Indeed, the column made it in by the simplest of devices — it was exactly as received from its regular author, whom (along with one hapless copy editor) the paper immediately suspended.

But that isn’t the end of the story.  Thousands of e-mails and letters came in, some applauding the paper’s step, but many deploring it.  The typical missive praised the author for speaking the truth, however harsh, and at least with a touch of humor, however macabre.

The paper has given in to popular demand and the Horoscope from Hell now appears once a week, in the Sunday Op-Ed pages, opposite George Will, who really does need to lighten up a bit.

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