Back in Trachis, Ceyx is still disturbed by his brother Daedalion’s transformation and by the transformation of the wolf that attacked Peleus’s cattle. He decides to consult an oracle at Apollo’s temple, which is only accessible by sea. When Alcyone hears that her husband is planning to leave on a long sailing trip, she starts to cry. She asks why Ceyx must leave her, and why he must travel by sea; she is afraid that he will die at sea, leaving her no body to bury. She knows that the storms on the open sea are very dangerous. She begs Ceyx to take her with him.
Ceyx, who was held back from fighting the wolf that attacked Peleus’s cattle by his loving wife Alcyone, is now drawn into unrest because of the different transformations that he has seen. This unrest actually causes him to consider leaving his wife and his kingdom—a place where he is happy and stable. This suggests that transformation—although it is such a common aspect of this world—is disturbing to those who haven’t witnessed it.
Ceyx is moved by Alcyone’s concern, but he is set on his journey. He tells Alcyone that it is too dangerous for her to accompany him, but he promises that he will return before two full moons. This promise comforts Alcyone slightly, and Ceyx orders his ship to be prepared. Alcyone tries to delay her husband’s departure, but he sets sail, waving to her from his ship. Alcyone waves back until the ship disappears, then she goes to her bedroom and bursts into tears.
Ceyx sailing away from Alcyone as she stands on the shore creates a foreboding picture. As the first chapter of the Metamorphoses pointed out, traveling across seas is something that can lead to corruption. There is the sense that, when Ceyx sails away, he will never return, the safe and happy space made by him and Alcyone having been broken.
When night is falling, the wind picks up and the sea gets choppy. Ceyx commands his crew to secure the ship against the storm, but the storm increases in intensity, and soon Ceyx has no idea what to do. Waves crash over the ship, drenching the shouting sailors. The ship rises high on tidal waves, then crashes low into the depths of the waves.
In this scene, Ceyx is confronted with a reminder that nature is more powerful than humanity. The invention of ships and the common practice of overseas sailing may have made humanity feel that nothing can stop them, but the tempest checks this confidence.
The ship’s planks start to break, and the rain drenches the sails. The ship floods as the waves batter against its broken sides. The sailors run around in confusion, losing their morale. They cry, pray to the heavens, and call out the names of their families. Ceyx thinks of Alcyone and wishes he’d never left her.
About to be killed by nature, Ceyx thinks that if he had never left Alcyone, he would not have been put at nature’s mercy. This suggests that staying with what’s familiar—rather than venturing out over-confidently—protects them from danger.
Suddenly, a tremendous wave crashes down on the ship and sends it to the bottom of the ocean. Many of the sailors drown, while some manage to swim to the surface. Ceyx clings to a floating plank and prays to the gods to no avail. He then prays that the waves carry his body to Alcyone so she can bury him. At last, he is submerged by a wave and doesn’t resurface.
Ceyx’s last wish is that he will be reunited with Alcyone. This shows how love for another person is a kind of humility. Instead of wishing for his life to be spared or for his memory to be glorified, he wishes to be reunited with his wife.
Back in Trachis, Alcyone has no idea that Ceyx has died. She counts the nights until her husband’s return, sewing new clothes for him. Every day, Alcyone goes to Juno’s altar and prays that her husband will return to her and not to another woman. Juno plans to grant her wish but is tired of receiving prayers for a dead person. Juno goes to Iris, the messenger goddess, and tells her to visit the god of Sleep and ask him to make Alcyone dream of Ceyx’s death.
Juno listens to Alcyone’s prayers and plans to answer them. However, she gets tired of Alcyone’s constant praying and wants to inform Alcyone of her husband’s death before the news comes to her naturally. Juno’s motivation isn’t clear, but it could be read as a lack of empathy, making the news of Ceyx’s death more nightmarish than it has to be.
Iris goes to the cave where Sleep lives. The cave is silent except for a babbling stream. Deep inside, Sleep rests on a bed of soft cushions. When Iris approaches him, he can barely open his drowsy eyes. Iris gives Sleep Juno’s message, asking him to appear in Alcyone’s dream disguised as Ceyx’s ghost. Sleep looks around at the various dream gods and chooses Morpheus—the one who can disguise himself as people—to carry out the task, then goes back to sleep.
With the help of Sleep, Juno creates Ceyx’s ghost in order to inform Alcyone of her husband’s death and stop her from praying to Juno. In this way, Juno shows that she is fed up and bored with Alcyone’s anxious love and decides to instigate her heartbreak early. With no god who appears to sympathize with deep human love, it is perhaps no surprise that love never seems to succeed in the human world.
That night, Morpheus floats to Trachis and stands at the foot of Alcyone’s bed, disguised as Ceyx’s ghost. He whispers into Alcyone’s ear, crying and telling her of his death. He tells her not to consider this dream a mere rumor, but to put on her mourning clothes and perform the funeral rituals. Alcyone sobs in her sleep and reaches out to the ghost but touches only air. She begs the ghost of Ceyx to take her with him.
As soon as Ceyx’s ghost informs Alcyone that her husband is dead, she begs to be taken to death with him. The tragic end to their marriage shows, more clearly than anything else, how deeply Ceyx and Alcyone love each other. The Metamorphoses therefore portrays love as an overwhelmingly tragic occurrence.
Alcyone wakes up and runs into the next room to look for Ceyx. When she doesn’t find him, she sobs and tears at her hair. She believes the ghost in her dream and tells her servants that Ceyx is dead. She turns to look at where the ghost had stood and speaks to Ceyx, telling him she wishes he’d brought her with him so they could have died together. She plans to die herself and unite their names on the gravestone.
Now that Ceyx has died, the only way that he and Alcyone can be together is if she dies, too, and their names are written side by side on the gravestone. Like Pyramus and Thisbe’s, their love only endures in a tragic form, suggesting that happiness can never last long.
The next morning, Alcyone goes to the seashore. She reminisces about the last time she saw Ceyx when he sailed away. As she gazes out to sea, she notices an object bobbing towards her. As it comes closer, she realizes that the body is Ceyx’s and leaps towards it. As she leaps, she changes into a bird. She flies to Ceyx, letting out a sad song, and kisses him with her beak. The gods then transform Ceyx into a bird, too. Even as birds, they remain devoted to each other.
Because they are transformed into devoted birds, Ceyx and Alcyone are able to be together in a sense. While their relationship as humans was doomed to tragedy, their relationship as birds is happier. In this way, transformation provides a way for people to have what they couldn’t have as humans in a different form, even if it’s not quite the same.