Nwokocha Agbadi was a wealthy, handsome, and intelligent local chief. He could have any woman he wanted.
When his tribe raided a neighboring village, he took the daughters of rich and titled men as his personal captives. He liked their arrogance, even in captivity.
Agbadi married a few women but got bored quickly when they became mothers. He would soon go looking for another "exciting, tall and proud female" (2.2).
He had two wives from his own village Ogboli, two from neighboring Ibuza; three of the four had been slaves.
He also had two mistresses, one of them a beautiful, stubborn, and arrogant young woman who refused to live with Agbadi. Her nickname was Ona and Agbadi spent all his time courting her.
Agbadi himself had given Ona this nickname when she was a child. Her father, a chief, had no sons and few children. He loved his daughter and told people she was his "ornament." So Agbadi asked him if he wanted to wear her around his neck like an ona, a precious jewel.
Ona's father told her she should never marry. She could sleep with whomever she wanted and if she had a son, he could take her father's name.
Agbadi was so possessed by this beautiful woman that he would have sent all his wives away just to live with her. People said that she had bewitched him, especially because he had to be reminded to do his duty by his wives, and to give them children.
One day, Agbadi had a terrible accident while out hunting elephants. An elephant attacks him and leaves him close to death.
The other hunters bring Agbadi back in a procession. Everyone runs to watch the sight, though they can't show grief yet. Since Agbadi is an important chief, they must wait for the official announcement of death.
When Ona hears, she loses her proud mask and runs after the men, trying to find out if Agbadi is dead. Agbadi's best friend Obi Idayi loses his temper and shouts at her that she tormented him while he was alive and only cries for him now that he's dead.
Ona is shocked and cries that he can't be dead. Nearby women tell her to watch her tongue – Agbadi is still a chief and etiquette has to be followed.
Ona stays near her lover the next few days, as the village does what it can to save his life.
They slaughter goats to appease the gods and send for medicine men. But Ona doesn't let anybody else touch Agbadi.
Even as she watches him, and realizes how much she loves him, Ona suspects that if she were to let him know it, he would soon grow bored with her as well.
If he dies, she wants to die, too. But if he begins to recover, she decides she'll leave and go home.
On the fifth day, he begins to recover. He looks so vulnerable that Ona feels motherly towards him and wants to gather him in her arms. But she can see from the way he chews his lip that he's about to say something hurtful, that he has figured out why she is there. But he just rolls away from her.
That night as she works to fix the bamboo splints near his shoulders, they begin to insult each other. He wonders what she would have done without him, and she tells him that if he doesn't shut up, she'll throw a calabash at him and leave. He says she can't go now, but she says she'll be glad to leave and let his wives take care of his stinking blood.
He tells her he'll die if she leaves and she sneers at him. She tells him to hurry up and die so she can go home. He mocks her and says he didn't say he would die because she, Ona, is indispensable.
Agbadi and his best friend Idayi laugh at her until Idayi tells him he needs to be careful, he's still fragile. Idayi asks Ona if she expects Agbadi to kneel down and thank her and she says yes, she's done enough for him that she deserves it.
Idayi sees her anger is getting out of control and tries to calm her down, reminding her that she wants a man, not a snail, and she is getting a man in the Agbadi. He won't admit it, but he needs Ona near him.
So Ona leaves, angry. She is torn between two men, her father and her lover. She can't leave her father but she still needs to be loyal to Agbadi.
That night, Ona's father, Obi Umunna, arrives to take Ona back with him.
Agbadi isn't ready to let her go yet. Agbadi quarrels with him, asking why he hasn't turned Ona into a son. Obi Umunna reminds him that he knew all along that his daughter would never marry.
Idayi interrupts the argument to announce that the kolanut and palm wine have arrived. He leads them in the prayers to the ancestors, asking for good health for Nwokocha Agbadi and everybody else.
That night, Agbadi has trouble sleeping. But Ona is lying beside him, so he watches her, noticing how she tries to stay far away from him.
He wants to hurt her for all the times she's treated him badly. But then he realizes that she needs him and he decides to be gentle instead.
He begins to caress her. He caresses her until she burns in her desire for him. He makes love to her so passionately and masterfully that she screams he is splitting her in two.
They wake the entire courtyard, and Idayi comes to find out if Agbadi is OK. He reassures her that he is only giving Ona pleasure.
But he leaves her unsatisfied, and she weeps as she asks him if he just wanted to humiliate her to put on a show for his people. He holds her as she weeps.
Agunwa, Agbadi's senior wife, becomes ill that night. Some people say it was because of the disrespect Agbadi showed him by pleasuring his mistress so openly. They call Ona a bad woman because she treated Agbadi so badly.
One of Agbadi's children wakes him up to tell him the news. Agbadi starts to get up, forgetting his shoulder, but Ona holds him back.
Agbadi sends for the medicine man, but his friend returns to say they do not think she will survive. He suggests that she was too strained by Agbadi's illness and then last night.
Agbadi says that Agunwa is too mature to mind that he was pleasuring his mistress.
They sacrifice goats and hens to try to save Agunwa, but by the time Agbadi is able to get up and around, Agunwa is so far gone, she doesn't even recognize him.
She dies two days later.
Ona knows that people blame her for Agunwa's death, even if they say nothing. She asks Agbadi if she should leave now, but Agbadi tells her that he has enough to worry about without her adding to it. He tells her to go to sleep.
The next day, Agunwa is buried with her personal slave. Good slaves jump in the grave, happy to die, but this one begs for her life. She fights and pushes her way out of the grave, while Agbadi's senior son angrily demands if his mother doesn't have the right to a decent burial. He hits the slave woman. But even as the slave woman thanks Agbadi for his kindness and mercy, another relative kills her with a blow to the head.
Ona faints, and Agbadi tells Idayi to finish the ceremony while he attends to Ona.
Ona's father returns the next day to tell Agbadi that something is killing everybody in his family and Agbadi says he will take care of her.
But Agbadi soon realizes that Ona is just pregnant. He assumes that means that Ona will now stay with him, but Ona says that can never be. When Agbadi goes to visit his farm, Ona sends word to her father to come get her.
Agbadi is so angry with her that Ona says she'll offer a compromise. If the baby is a boy, her father can have him, since he has no sons. If the baby is a girl, Agbadi can have the child.
Agbadi is loving towards Ona the rest of the night.
She bears a daughter months later. She realizes that Agbadi has won the deal and feels sorry for her father.
Agbadi is happy when he comes to visit but Obi Umunna (Ona's father) says he will not honor the love talk between two lovers on their mat. He will not ask his daughter to violate her word, so the daughter is Agbadi's, but his daughter will remain with him (Obi Umunna).
Ona agrees with her father, pointing out that Agbadi hasn't paid the bride price for her.
Agbadi says he has never forced a woman to be with him, so if she wants to be with her father, he will leave her alone.
Obi Umunna dies a year after Nnu Ego's birth. (We learn that Nnu Ego is the daughter born of Agbadi and Ona.)
For two years, Agbadi tries to persuade Ona to come live with him, but she refuses.
Both Ona and Agbadi adore their daughter, Nnu Ego. She is born with a strange lump on her head, but it doesn't bother her until one day she has a strange headache. They call for the medicine man, the dibia, who says that Nnu Ego is the slave woman who died with Agunwa.
The lump on Nnu Ego's head is where the men beat her before she fell into the grave. He advises them to go and appease the slave woman.
Agbadi orders Ona to leave her father's house so that Nnu Ego can come to his place and worship her chi there (i.e., the slave woman who died with Agunwa). So Ona complies.
Ona becomes pregnant again but goes into premature labor. She dies, as does the baby boy, but not before she makes Agbadi promise to let Nnu Ego be a woman, to let her marry and be with her husband.
Nnu Ego is the reminder of Agbadi's passion for Ona.