PLANT CITY — The petite blond in the middle of the round pen lets a rope and riding whip roll from her fingers onto the dirt. A horse, charcoal and white, circles warily. There is much he doesn't know about her. Why she's here. Why — since he was rescued last summer, his teeth rotten and skin drooping — she has come almost every week. Why she has a way with him, a patience, no one else does.
Marilyn Shamblin, 31, kneels and extends her hand. Lebo, as she calls him, doesn't come. She steps away. He follows, but stops. In Marilyn's first memory, at age 3, she is hiding behind a couch, peeling cream paint chips off the wall, and her father is holding a revolver to her mother's head.
Lebo circles again. Another horse bucks nearby. Lebo, snorting, turns and noses Marilyn's outstretched hand. He's frightened. She tells him he's okay. Her parents divorced when she was a little girl in Detroit. Back then, she wore clothes from a thrift shop and got hangers for Christmas. Her father abused many women but spared Marilyn. Her mom explained that's how he showed her love.
She picks up a wool saddle blanket and holds it to Lebo's nose. He recoils. She rubs it on his chest and down his shoulders and, softly, slips it onto his back. He doesn't move. Marilyn smiles. At 19 a man in a Detroit bar bought her a shot of Jagermeister. Moments later her world went black. Another man, in his 40s, told her girlfriends she looked ill and he'd take her home. She awoke next to him the following afternoon, her body bruised and carpet-burned. Because she couldn't remember saying no, detectives wouldn't charge him with rape.
She ties Lebo to the fence. He tugs the rope as she gently lays a saddle on his back. His head jerks. The saddle falls off. As he calms, she pats his head. "You're doing such a good job," she says. "I know this is scary." One night three years after the assault, a neighbor followed Marilyn into her Tampa apartment. Her mind stopped. She didn't fight back. Her boyfriend found her passed out on the bed. "Marilyn," he screamed, "you were raped." The neighbor was still in her shower, a butcher knife nearby. When she understood what had happened, again, she beat her head against the hardwood floor.
Lebo quivers as Marilyn hoists the saddle atop him. "Shhh," she whispers. "You're okay." He lowers his head and presses into her. "Trust me," she says. After the second rape, when suicide felt so close, she went to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and learned she wasn't broken. She found hope — and a voice. She began working with other survivors of abuse, even horses. She married in September, and no longer needs a drink or a pill to sleep. Not long ago, a woman who'd been raped came to the center. The woman trembled, barefoot and sunburned. Marilyn told her she's not alone.