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Two days later, the lava dome collapses. Traffic grinds to a halt in downtown Yogyakarta as motorists gape at the scorching avalanche of rocks rushing down Merapi's western flank—away from Marijan's village. Thanks to the timely evacuation, nobody is hurt.

Antonius Ratdomopurbo, director of the Volcanological Research and Technological Development Agency in Yogyakarta, is visibly relieved. "Merapi isn't a big volcano, but it's heavily populated. Many people were killed in 1930 simply because they were too close." Marijan has just been lucky, he says. A month later, the lava dome collapses again, this time to the south, and two rescue workers perish under six feet (two meters) of hot ash. Again, fortune—or is it the volcano deity?—spares Marijan's village. Does the Gatekeeper understand anything about the science of volcanoes? "I don't know," replies Ratdomopurbo with a tight smile. "You ask him."

In his stubborn adherence to duty, Marijan has gone head-to-head not only with the authorities but also with his own boss, Hamengku Buwono X, the sultan, who backed the government's call for an evacuation.

Hamengku Buwono X—the name means "sustainer of the universe"—heads a dynasty that dates back to the 18th century. His official portrait shows him in full Javanese court attire, a curved dagger tucked into his magnificent batik sarong. His everyday wear is an impeccably tailored dark suit—preferably Armani. In his office, during an interview, he puffs on a fat Davidoff cigar. A large painting of a volcano hangs on the wall behind him. "Not Merapi," he says dismissively. "Fuji."

Though tradition requires he employ Marijan, Hamengku Buwono X, a law graduate, does not believe in volcano-dwelling spirits. He is a progressive Muslim who has urged Yogyakartans to consider Merapi's eruptions from a scientific perspective. "A great nation cannot be built on pessimistic myths," he believes.

The relationship between the sultan and Marijan is uneasy, to say the least. The two inhabit opposite poles: the modern sultan versus the mystical Gatekeeper. Marijan tells reporters he will evacuate if ordered by the sultan—but he doesn't mean the current ruler. His sultan is the much loved Hamengku Buwono IX, father of Hamengku Buwono X, who appointed Marijan as Gatekeeper and who died almost 20 years ago. "I follow the ninth sultan," he says. "He was the man in the kraton last time I visited."

In Marijan's opinion, the current sultan's biggest mistake is allowing businessmen to strip Merapi of millions of cubic feet of rock and sand. "He is not the sultan," says Marijan witheringly. "He's just the governor."
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