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The streak of tragedy haunting the president could be explained, it was said, by his inauspicious birth date and by the name of his vice president, Jusuf Kalla, which bore an unhappy resemblance to that of a man-eating monster called Batara Kala. Amid renewed calls to perform a ritual to dispel the run of bad luck, President Yudhoyono and his cabinet joined a mass prayer at Jakarta's grand mosque. "Nothing unusual," insisted his spokesman, but the high-profile gathering was clearly meant to allay national fears.

Other politicians appeal directly to the spirits. Before running for vice president, one candidate sneaked off to worship at a volcano near Lake Toba, where there is reportedly a helipad for visiting VIPs. The spirits must not have been listening: He was defeated. Another time, members of the Indonesian National Unity and Fusion Party gathered high on Merapi's slopes for a ritual-laced political rally, even though the volcano was on the brink of erupting. Led by Arief Koesno, a portly ex-actor who believes he is the reincarnation of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, the ceremony started with the slaughter of nine goats and ended with party members dancing wildly in a circle.

"After this ceremony," Koesno declared, "I am certain Merapi will not erupt." Three days later, it did. In the smoking caldera of Indonesian politics, belief in the supernatural persists among even the most modern, high-ranking leaders. "Indonesian politicians are hypocrites," says Permadi, a professional soothsayer and member of parliament. "They say they believe in Islam, in the Holy Koran. They also claim to be rational, because many are educated in America. But in their hearts, they still believe in mysticism."

Even President Yudhoyono, claims Permadi, has conducted a ritual atop Mount Lawu, a revered Javanese volcano. The persistence of mysticism also explains why, when campaigning for office, many politicians make it a point to pay their respects to Mbah Marijan, the well-connected Gatekeeper of Merapi.

AS THINGS HEAT UP around Merapi, dozens of reporters flock to cover the standoff starring the immovable Marijan, Merapi's first media-age Gatekeeper. Soon, his face and the words "President of Merapi" adorn T-shirts all over Yogyakarta. To raise funds for his impoverished Kinarejo neighbors, he appears in a television advertisement for an energy drink.

Marijan, who inherited his job as Merapi's caretaker from his father, is paid the equivalent of a dollar a month by the kraton, as the sultan's high-walled palace in Yogyakarta is known. In traditional Javanese cosmology, the kraton sits on an invisible line between Mount Merapi and the nearby Indian Ocean. The sultan, a palace publication explains, is a "divinely chosen person" whose coronation is preceded by "a supernatural message." Along with the everyday business of governing Yogyakarta, the sultan is also responsible for placating a powerful sea goddess called Ratu Kidul, and Merapi's guardian ogre, Sapu Jagat.

One morning, soldiers arrive. "I don't want to leave," Marijan tells them with all the firmness his creaky voice can convey. "Maybe I'll leave tomorrow. Maybe the day after tomorrow. It's up to me." Then he heads for the village mosque. Marijan's duties may include mollifying a volcano-dwelling ogre. But he is also a devout Muslim who prays five times a day.
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